It Takes a Village to...Teach Some Manners?
Most know Lynne Truss as the author the no-nonsense approach to grammar Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Incidentally, that book was the reason that I ended up on her site, ended up clicking a link to her other book, Talk to the Hand, and ended up spending nearly an hour reading the introduction that is posted on her homepage.
Talk to the Hand is about the loss of politeness and subsequent overwhelming rise of rudeness in modern society. Even just reading the introduction, a lot of sense was made for me on points that had before been a bit baffling or simply beyond categorization.
I tend to be an overwhelmingly polite person, to the point of being old-fashioned. I hold the doors for my elders, let them walk first, use all those little "please" and "thank you" lost in the hustle-and-bustle of modern life. My politeness has always baffled me, not because I found it averse (quite the opposite) but because it felt very old-fashioned, and I am far from an old-fashioned girl. From my political leanings to my comfort discussing sexual topics to my style of dress all seem to suggest a person for whom "old-fashioned manners" feels a bit incongruent.
Of course, I was raised that way, ingrained from a young age to say "please" and "thank you" and make minimal gestures of respect, like holding doors or picking up my garbage or not being obnoxiously loud in public places. Manners seemed, to me, to be a long list of do's and don't's. Do pick up your soda cup when leaving a movie theatre. Don't have loud cellular phone conversations in a restaurant. They felt intuitive to me but rules nonetheless, codes of behavior that had somehow been decided.
I suppose that I had never given much thought to how they were decided and so figured them to be rather arbitrary. Alas, the excerpt of Truss's book suggests that this is not the way of things at all. It was not the books of etiquette that led to the evolution of good manners, the lists of how to hold a fork and cross your legs and address various persons of importance. Instead, good manners are simply making an effort to be considerate of others' comforts and needs. I don't talk into my cell while ordering at Panera Bread because it's rude, but I don't need Miss Manners to tell me that. I know that I am delaying the folks waiting behind me with my conversation. I am treating the cashier who should have my full attention with less than that and so am being disrespectful. I am forcing strangers to listen to me argue with my husband over a J.C. Penney bill or talk with my friend about my wicked-bad menstrual cramps or moon about my problems at work. I don't do these things because I know that the comfort of others is sacrificed to make room for my rude behavior.
Then it clicked why I can generally detest bureaucracy and rules and yet embrace good manners to the fullest: Because it is not so much an issue of rules as empathy, and I've always been pretty darned good at that.
Then, of course, we get into the issue of why manners have devolved so over the last few decades. Sure, rude people are not new, but I think that we will all agree that rude people slowly seem to be taking over the globe. People talking on their cells and holding up traffic or the sandwich line; people letting their kids scream and throw Cheerios all over the floor in a restaurant while they lean on their elbows and chat to their girlfriends; people using the merge lane to get a few car-lengths ahead of we poor saps who have been sitting in the backup for a half-hour without reprieve. How did this come about? Is it the media? Our lackadaisical upbringings? Air pollution? Rap music? Please, give us answers!
Truss's theory is that the crumbling sense of community is leading to a decline in good manners. When we live in a society where we feel that we are part of a community, it is easier to think of the person in line behind us as a human being just like we are. It is hard to make a choice out of comfort or laziness that will inconvenience that person. But when community goes away, we become more insular. Our world becomes me-me-me. The person behind us delayed by our cell call or our decision to strike up conversation with a long-lost friend in the middle of the path: Screw 'em. Bobby and I both have been cut off by drivers, nearly involved in an accident because of the other driver's inconsideration, and they flip us off for having the impertinence to honk our horns. With our cell in one ear, iPod in the other; in our suburban communities where we don't care to know our neighbors' names so long as they aren't of frightening ethnicities, it is easy to lose a sense of community and easy to forget that the people we are hurting are people, just like me and you.
Interestingly, two days earlier, I had been reading the July issue of National Geographic, an interesting article about global warming and how the environmental movement was failing to address it in a way that was generating any solutions. The author brought up the same point as Truss: Global warming is largely caused by our lack of community. For one, we don't know our neighbors well enough to knock on their doors before we go to the store and ask if they need a gallon of milk, much less carpool for grocery shopping, picking up the kids from school, or riding to work. Secondly, it's that me-me-me attitude again: Why should I inconvenience myself with walking ten minutes to the store across the street when I can drive there in two? Never mind the impact my actions make on my community, on the world as a whole. Me-me-me.
I suppose that I am bemoaning nothing new: People have been attributing drug use and crime to a lack of community for some time now. But it intrigued me, seeing these two separate pieces of writing that attribute vastly different problems--one as massive as global warming and the other as seemingly insignificant as a person's failure to say "Thank you" for a held door--to the same cause: a lack of community and the subsequent failure to identify with our fellow human beings as we once did.
I know around here, people make no secret of being "in a hurry" through much of their lives. The attitude of climbing on your friend's head to get that promotion is rather exalted...so long as it results in a three-storey home in Waverly Woods and two Mercedes in the driveway. Is it any surprise that the people with a cell phone in one hand and a latte in the other, zipping down the Capitol Beltway at 88 mph while steering with their elbows are apt not to have time--or concern--for some hippie-looking, government-bureaucrat nothing like me? Even to give me a turn signal before cutting me off and nearly sending me into the jersey wall? Because what's my life to her meeting?
Because I don't want to sound too highbrow, I will now allow myself to grumble about the most annoying ways that people are rude.
- People. On. Cellphones. I know that I'm not new in stating this, but the sight alone of a person with a phone in the ear makes me grit my teeth. This summer, Bobby and I stopped at Rita's Italian Ice on our way home from hiking. The guy in front of us was on a cellphone. He maintained his loud conversation all while standing in line. He ordered in between yakking. I proclaimed, "Oh, how rude!" and everyone around us turned in relief. "Oh, you think so too?" Of course I do! Are we so ingrained in "cell phone culture" that holding up a mass of people waiting in line and showing blatant disrespect to the cashier taking one's order is acceptable because "this is a really important call"?
- People who inch alongside you with their signal on and, when you let them over, promptly drop to 10 mph below the speed limit. Usually because they're taking a cell phone call.
- People who walk abreast on the sidewalk and--when I'm coming at them from the opposite direction--won't step aside to allot my half to me, forcing me to step onto the curb or into the street. Is it really so hard to step aside so that I don't chance getting splattered by a Ford F-150 (whose driver is probably talking on a cell phone?)
- People who can't seem to grasp that I don't want to spend my entire meal listening to their baby screaming. Look, I know parenting is hard. But that doesn't change the fact that twenty-five people are paying fifty bucks a pop for meals that they can't enjoy because your baby is screaming, and you don't want to interrupt your own meal to remove him/change him/feed him/hold him (maybe because you're on your cell phone too?) and are too damned cheap to pay a babysitter.
- On the same thread, people who bring babies or small children to R-rated movies. If I couldn't get into G.I. Jane when I was sixteen, then what makes someone think that Hostel is a good place to take a four-year-old? Again: pony up. Pay a babysitter.
- On the same thread, people who feel the need to add running commentary to the movies. "Oh! He's hiding behind the car! Oh! He's going to get her! Look out! Look out! (She's good as dead, you know.) Ha! Look at that stupid muthafucka. Woo! Yeah! Hit him harder! Git that dog! Woo!" Ugh.
- People who think that they're cool because they have a sound system in their car that makes my teeth hurt (and I'm three cars away) and feel the need to drive around with it turned all the way up.
- People that think that the ground/gutter/building hallway is but a big trashcan. Which really says, "I'm too lazy to carry my garbage for the three feet that it would take to put it in the bin, so Dawn can pick it up for me."
- People who stop in the crosswalk with a sour look on their faces, then--when you stop so that they can proceed safely across the street--meander as slooooowwwwwlllllyyyyyy aaaaaassss tttttthhhhheeeeyyyy ccccaaannnn. And of course don't wave thanks for not flattening their asses.
- People who don't properly tip their servers. For Bobby and me to tip less than 20% requires some sort of egregious behavior that we know is the server's fault. Like we're the only table, we see her at the wait station talking on her cell phone, we're eating spicy TexMex food, and our drinks have been empty for ten minutes. And I am making a point to suck on the dregs in hopes that "Oh! Obnoxious noise! Someone needs a refill!" But this comes back to the idea of community. Bobby and I put ourselves through school (the first time) partly based on tips that we made as servers. In Maryland, servers make $2.38 an hour (minimum wage is currently $6.15). Yet as soon as it comes time to pay up for the service received, people start shifting around and coming up with excuses to leave less than the required amount. "Well the water tasted funny." (Call the town of Belair; I have nothing to do with that.) "Well, the food took a long time." (Then don't tip the cook, who makes $10 an hour anyway.) "Well, I talked on my cell phone for ten minutes and my fries got cold." (Then complain to God for making the laws of physics disfavorable to cell-phone junkies.) "Well, I don't agree that we should have to leave a tip." (Then write your Congressperson and change the law; until then, I'm still making $2.38 an hour.)
Now admit it: what rude behaviors absolutely get under your skin?