My husband, Greg, and I are firm believers in the value of politeness and we’ve spent HOURS teaching our son to care about them too. At their most basic level, manners cost you little and earn you much. It takes only seconds to say, “Please” and “Thank you,” hold open a door or even smile and inquire briefly about someone’s day.
The rewards for these small acts of civility can be great. People are more willing to help you, they tend to like you better and the decent behavior can be paid forward. As Margaret Walker put it, “Friends and good manners will carry you where money won’t go.” How true. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have spoken approvingly of my son’s manners nor can I count the times service industry personnel have become friendlier and commented on my politeness. Greg too comes in for his share of compliments as people constantly mention how willing he is to help.
Yet despite the minimal effort involved and the many returns for showing good manners, it never fails to amaze me how many people fail to use them. Just today I was at the store and I saw a woman struggling with coming out the door as she was carrying a bunch of food. A man leapt to her aid and opened the door for her. Instead of smiling gratefully and saying, “Thank you!” or even just nodding in acknowledgement, she just sailed right through without even looking at him. What is up with that? And that is just one small example among thousands.
Greg suggested that people are not polite as often as they should be (I recognize that people probably are inconsistent with their manners) because they are too self-absorbed. That may be the short answer but it begs the question of where and why they learned to think only of themselves. I also wonder how they decided that manners were something not worthy of their time and, even worse, not important enough to teach their children.
At its core, the basic premise of manners and civility is that we live in a community. We are all in this together, so we must not only be nice to one another but also learn to function as a team. United we stand, divided we fall and all that. If we are to survive, we must care about one another. Manners demonstrate that we recognize this sense of togetherness. As Emily Post said, “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.” As such, saying please is a concession that you are asking something of someone that they are not obliged to give. Thank you recognizes that someone went out of their way to do something nice for you. Holding open a door shows that you are respectful of the path other people walk and are trying to make it easier for them. Allowing people with only one item to go ahead of you in line proves that you value their time as much as your own. I could go on but, suffice it to say that every act of manners is one that demonstrates care for another.
Yet more and more people seem unwilling to be mannerly. What are their reasons for refusing to step up and fulfill their central civic duties, like being respectful of others? Why are they not only not being polite but also are not voting and not even seeming to care about others beyond their own circles of family and friends? These seem like especially pertinent questions lately as many seem to care less (or at all) about those in need of help. I have contemplated the answers to these questions and here are several possible answers.
One of the first issues is that of overcrowding: there are too many people in the world. We now have over 7 BILLION people on this planet and that is too many. This number reminds me of the Schoolhouse Rock song and cartoon, “Elbow Room” that showed astronauts going to the moon just to get a little space. I also think of the Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon” in which the residents of an overcrowded planet were so desperate for privacy that they actively sought a deadly virus for population control. Human beings do not do well with large numbers of people. There are a number of studies that suggest overcrowding is strongly related to poor mental health (including higher levels of anxiety) and challenging social relationships. Thus, as there are more and more people around us, it gets easier to be rude because we don’t know many of them personally and larger numbers create more annoyance. Aggression increases in direct correlation to the number of people beside us.
Another problem is technology. The more we interact with machines, the less time we spend connecting with humans. Research has repeatedly demonstrated the dire consequences of avoiding emotional intimacy. People who have difficulty connecting on a deeper level with others get sick more often, die at younger ages and suffer more from depression and other psychological maladies. There is a reason why most mass murderers are loners. Human beings are social creatures and when we forget that basic premise, we court significant trouble. Thus, while technology brings great rewards, we may be paying the price for it in decreased human interaction. The more we engage with social media sites, the easier it becomes to forget how to interact politely and meaningfully with people in real time.
A third issue behind the lack of civility involves individualistic thinking. Human beings do not exist in a vacuum yet we like to act as though we do, especially here in the United States. We put a premium on the rights of the individual while ignoring the importance of the system. We live in systems, starting from the micro (our own bodily system) and stretching from the family and local community systems to national and international systems, the global eco-system and even the solar system. No one can get along without the larger systems yet we have become lax in nurturing them. The U.S. is basically ignoring the larger needs of the family, the community and the environment and we will certainly pay a price for this behavior in the long run. One small way we’re already seeing this toll is through the rudeness of others. Once we start thinking that we’re the only ones who matter, everyone and everything else becomes expendable. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.
This leads me to the problem of the lack of cultural sanctions for not using manners. It used to be that families would take care of the problem of disrespect. Children were not allowed to be rude to adults or even their peers. They were disciplined for being sassy or cruel because their parents knew that the survival of the community depended on valuing the contribution of all. But this sanction has fallen by the wayside and people feel free to be rude in public with impunity. Someone who is rude might get a few nasty looks or even a stray comment or two but nothing truly bad happens. In psychology terms, rude people are reinforced for their rudeness because they get what they want and do not fear punishment. This needs to change. While I am not advocating a Manners Police, I do believe that rude people should pay some price, be it a refusal to grant their request (which is what we do with children) or being made to atone via an apology. In short, we need some consequence to make them want to be civil again.
Finally, I think there exists a misunderstanding of what it means to be polite. I cannot tell you how many times people have told me that they refuse to be polite because others are rude to them. I understand this feeling as I often want to yell, “You’re welcome, Queen Elizabeth!” or slam the door on people who walk through the door I am holding open for them without acknowledging my gesture. However, the point of manners is that it is behavior YOU are demonstrating without the concern of how it is received. Politeness is behavior you exhibit because it is the right thing to do, because care for others is something you feel in your heart. As Amy Vanderbilt pointed out, “Good manners have much to do with the emotions. To make them ring true, one must feel them, not merely exhibit them.” Thus, politeness is about how you feel about others and who you decide to be; it is entirely within your control.
Given all this, what do we do? There are larger issues involved in manners and those cannot be solved overnight. The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step, so I’d suggest starting small and doing what we can. Use your manners. Think of others. Politely let rude people know when they’ve crossed the line (polite doesn’t mean being a doormat). Interact more in real time. See what you can do to help. Like smiles, good manners can be infectious, so others may follow your good example and pay forward the civility you’ve shown them. After all, that would be the mannerly thing to do.