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Manners and Etiquette for the Modern Age

Updated on March 12, 2012

Do Manners Still Matter?

Everyone is in such a hurry these days. People are pushing, shoving, interrupting, and doing everything they can to insure "me first." In other words, their behavior is the height of bad manners. However, manners do still matter--perhaps now more than ever.

Back in the day, manners were known by all, and were the grease that made society function. Well, it seems the grease has broken down, and needs to be replaced.

We, as a society have become increasingly selfish and self-absorbed; this is evident at every level, from the person walking around the grocery store carrying on an endless conversation on their cell phone, oblivious to the fact that they and their cart are blocking the aisle; the inconsiderate creep who parks in such a way as to block access to two other spaces; the brazen businessperson who barges past everyone else as if they are not there; the cheating lazy so-and-so who parks in a handicapped space without proper credentials; the store clerk who is so busy chatting with her co-worker that she fails to notice customers waiting; to the extreme end of the spectrum with the street thug blowing someone away with a gunshot for some alleged insult.

Bad Manners Are Costly

Being rude, inconsiderate, selfish, unkind or just plain unaware can cost you everything from a friendship to a business deal to, in the extreme case cited above, your very life. That's not to say that you should become a doormat, and let people walk all over you. That's not to imply you should not defend yourseslf if threatened with physical harm. Those are not the kinds of scenarios we're discussing here.

People think etiquette guru Emily Post is dead. (Well, technically, she is; she lived from October 27, 1872 – September 25,1960.) However, her famous works on good manners for polite society gave rise to The Emily Post Institute. Her great-granddaughters are still in charge at the institution and provide the answers to questions in an etiquette advice column, as well a several books on manners.

While most people today never need to know which fork to use first at a formal dinner, or how to arrange the seating for such a dinner, most seem to need constant reminding of the most basic level of manners, such as "please," "thank you" and "excuse me."

Manners: A Matter of Rules and Laws???!!

If you think about it, to some extent, yes--there has been an attempt to legislate what ought to be good manners. Another name for good manners is "common decency." And that is the source of many laws--an attempt to legislate two things formerly considered common--sense and decency.

A perfect example is the law requiring you to leave behind a note with your name and phone number should you run into car with your own vehicle, while the other car is parked and the owner not present. Shouldn't that be a simple manner of good manners, a.k.a. common decency, a.k.a. honor? It is in my book.

Similarly, on board buses, we see signs advising people to save the forward-most seats for the elderly or infirm. No one should need to be reminded so publicly of such basic good manners.

Public Manners vs. At-Home Manners

In an ideal world, there really should be no such difference. In practice, however, there is. How much difference depends upon the individual families. In some homes, the strictest and most formal manners are enforced at all times. This is a mixed blessing. Those people will, indeed, usually be very polite when out in public, and their children will be raised by those standards.

The other side of the coin, however, allows for rebellion against such rigidity; it could end up the reverse, that kids raised so strictly raise Cain when away from parental supervision. It is impossible to ride herd on kids 24 hours a day once they reach school age. So, I'm all in favor of relaxing a bit on the homefront. Not that we should not treat our family with respect as much as we do strangers or casual acquaintances, just that we should allow for additional familiarity.

For example, if you are all sitting down to watch a movie, a certain amount of goofing off--within the family--can be tolerated. This can possibly include such games as tossing popcorn up and catching it open-mouthed; certainly not the done thing when out in public.

A child eating at home can be excused for drinking the last of her milk from the cereal right out of the bowl; but when visiting or at a restaurant, either leave it or use a spoon.

Those are just a couple of minor examples of 'at home' vs. 'in public' manners.

Respect Others' Personal Space

No one likes to feel hemmed in and crowded. I understand that the definition and distance of "personal space" varies between cultures. However, I would advise use of the old adage, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." And this applies to any country in which you may live or visit.

There are certain cultures whose customs I would find too uncomfortable on a personal level, so rather than travel there, do as I choose, and offend those whose home country it is, I stay home.

The reverse is true. There are cultures where pushing, shoving, and even being "professionally pushed" into train cars like so many sardines is considered the acceptable thing to do: here in the U.S.A., it is not.

Our definition of "personal space" is much wider, and it applies to all public situations from standing in lines to general crowds. Basically, stand with your palms propped on your hip bones, and turn in a circle; you should bump into no one. Leave that much space between you and the next person in light crowds or checkout lines. If you do not have room to do that, you are infringing on someone's personal space.

In very crowded situations, such as standing-room-only concerts, or buses and trains at commute hour, the spacing will be much closer, but we certainly do not employ "people packers" here. Even in these conditions, there should be room for shuffling of feet for balance; room to raise an arm to the grab-bar, and space to "scooch" past folks when your stop approaches.

Shopping Manners

If you are shopping, please, please, remember "excuse me" when reaching across someone to select an item, or if you bump into them by accident. And don't push and shove your way through as if you own the aisle, acting as if the other people are just so many empty boxes. It is very rude, and can also be hazardous, especially if you happen to bump into someone with poor balance or a health condition such as an elderly person.

At the risk of appearing rude myself and offending some measure of the population, I simply must address the above admonishion particularly to those who are morbidly overweight. They may or may not have a medical condition that has caused the extra weight, and I sympathize with that. I have also known many folks who face the challenge of trying to drop over a hundred extra pounds, and I realize it is difficult in the extreme.

However, I have so many times been nearly run down by such persons that I am obliged to say this: you may well have once been very slender, and have an "inner thin person" waiting to get out. But in the meantime, please realise the actual space you occupy, and allow for that when going past folks in the store. Sadly, it is not your thinner self that is actually in the store, and misjudging that can cause others to fall or be knocked off balance against a shelf when you bump into them.

More than once, I've been thankful I had my walking cane with me, so that I could stick it out to the side for added balance as such a person bowled her way past me to the shelf. Without the cane, I'd have been on the ground. On once such occasion, what was worse, is that the culprit acted as if I were invisible. She uttered not so much as an "excuse me, please," or "could you please hand me one of those..," and not even an apology. In her case, I'd say she was just a generally rude person, and would have been just as rude if she'd only weighed 90 pounds...but at 90 pounds, she'd not have nearly knocked me off my feet.

Grease and Oil Make Machinery Run Well

Society at large is social machinery; everyone has their roles, and interaction with the other parts of this machine (i.e., other people), require the same lubrication as any piece of machinery.

The difference is, society is a living, breathing machine, and all of its parts have self-awareness. Manners are the grease and oil that helps this big societal machine run smoothly.

Thank you for reading.


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