When my kids were little, every time they interacted with strangers, I felt a little boost of pride. Once, my kids were polite.
My parents cared about politeness. My mom had an old copy of Emily Post, where we would look up the proper way to do things. Which fork goes where. How long you can wait, before sending a thank-you note for a wedding present. Which side of the spoon you slurp—or rather sip—your soup from.
I was in charge of setting the table—five cents per day! So, it was my job to make sure everything was just so.
Etiquette is to Behavior as Grammar is to Language
You would never dream of ending an exclamation (Watch out!!) with a question mark (Watch out?) It’s just not done. Mixing up your punctuation, or word order, or using an adjective instead of an adverb, halts communication dead in its tracks. Meanwhile, the recipient of your message confusedly tries to determine what in the world you meant by what you wrote.
There were once strict rules for behavior, too:
- If someone calls you, you should call them back.
- If asked a direct question, you should answer, even if only to be evasive.
- If, on a crowded bus, someone frail, or elderly, or pregnant, is standing, you should offer your seat to them.
- If you are a man, you should open the door for a lady.
And so on. There were some regionalisms, such as whether it was necessary to attach “Sir” or “Ma’am” when addressing an adult, but most of these common good manners held true across the country.
Many today would regard such rules to be insulting remnants of an entrenched sexism, vestiges of a long-lost, regimented, male-dominated culture. Many would find these quaint formalities unnecessary, in our modern, first-name-basis, world economy. Women were put in charge of such things, solely to keep them busy, while men excluded them from “real work.”
In my youth, we knew what to do, because we were taught. Everyone seemed to agree, that as long as you stuck to those rules, you were doing as much as was required of you. There was no need for additional bending over backwards, to ascertain someone’s state of mind, before determining if what you were saying might “trigger” them.
People expected a certain degree of respect and decorum in the actions of others. But beyond that, each person was expected to be responsible for their own state of mind.
Modern Manners or Lack Thereof
Things are different now. People still teach their children manners, but what they teach has changed over time, as society has gradually become more open, and at the same time, more sensitive.
We no longer spend hours teaching our children the Victorian rules for leaving calling cards, or for keeping track of multiple forks and spoons on either side of our dinner plates. Many of us rarely even eat at a table, except on special occasions. Many of us rarely eat together as a family at all. Is it any wonder that we focus less on table manners these days?
Even rules from my childhood, in the seventies, seem quaint and obsolete. We no longer expect girls to always sit with their legs together, for instance. Or expect grown women to wear pantyhose (good riddance!)
On the other hand, we suddenly have to confront sticky conundrums like,
- which gender pronoun do I use? Or
- will opening a door for a woman silently insinuate that she is incapable of doing so herself?or
- will an honest compliment seem sexually harassing in some way?
Social rules change from place to place, too.
When I moved from Up North, I remember bristling whenever anyone said “Ma’am” to me. Even though I now lived in the South, and it was still common practice. I remember resisting calling teachers “Sir,” because it was reminiscent of the way slaves talked (in movies, anyway) and therefore, in my mind, demeaning to the one who said it.
I wanted no part of slavery, and as a proud Northerner, I felt quite completely absolved of our nation’s guilt in upholding the institution. Despite the fact that my skin was pretty pale.
Years later, my husband explained to me that this form of address (Sir/Ma’am) was a way of showing respect for those older, wiser, or higher on the food chain, than you. He said it was very important to families with members in the military, where rank and honor are highly valued. I gradually grasped that others could, on occasion, look at things differently than did. I stopped being so darn convinced of my Yankee superiority.
Politeness in a foreign country can throw you for a loop as well. Customs vary as you cross borders. My trip to Germany left me feeling like an oaf in so many ways, most of all in my American lack of formality. I found, at least in those days, outside of the University campus, you had to determine, before each interaction, your relationship with the other person. Then you would know whether to address them with a formal or an informal pronoun. Every reflexive form, every direct and indirect object must then also change to follow suit. It was by far the most intimidating aspect of the language.
Connecting Without Borders
Now so much of our etiquette is focused on remote connections, rather than on the interactions between two people face-to-face. We teach rules about online safety, such as which Facebook requests you can safely ignore, and which you had better respond to.
We also teach our children by example. They learn that it’s ok to let a call to the home phone (if you even have one) go to the answering machine. They learn that you should never pick up the phone when you get a call from an unfamiliar number. They learn it’s ok to eat in front of the TV. They learn that a few dirty dishes in the sink won’t kill anyone. Speaking for myself, of course.
We have relaxed some rules to accommodate our busy lives. We have also developed many new ones to protect us from brazen intrusions upon our privacy:
- Unsolicited calls at all hours
- Annoying pop-up ads
- The collection of personal information for profit or criminal purposes
- “Suggestive” selling
- Failure to return emails and phone calls
- Direct-to-voice-mail practices
- Robotic or recorded call systems
- The failure to provide human problem solvers
- Referring exclusively to web content to explain things
- Sloppy and careless use or storage of valuable personal data
What would Emily Post think!
Our society’s etiquette is no longer bent on trying to help, or trying to avoid offending, our neighbors. I can think of many rules from my youth that are being violated in each of these instances:
- Respect your neighbor’s time and privacy
- Do not bore your neighbor
- Do not self-promote
- Do not use entrusted secrets for personal gain or malicious gossip
- Don’t talk shop in social settings
- Be responsive and prompt in communication with others
- Do not avoid or procrastinate
- Don’t pass off your work onto another just because you don’t want to do it
- Respond personally to complaints
- Keep everything in order so you can find it
It is true that people are human, and have always had lapses of etiquette. Many rules are only honored in the breach. But there are so many violations of simple etiquette rules in the internet world, that we might as well be living in the Wild West.
The Stream Reigns Supreme
Nobody says thanks anymore. This is true, not just in my house, but across the culture. Something happened, when we took our eyes off each other, and allowed them to settle, for a greater or lesser portion of each day, on a screen.
This same attitude, which acknowledges the supremacy of the internet stream to everything else in life, infiltrates every moment of our lives. Especially as homeschooling parents of teens.
We face the constant challenge of competing with the ceaselessly entertaining content the internet provides. The internet eases our job in some ways. It allows us to find resources with ease, connect with other homeschoolers, organize and attend events. But it also makes homeschooling more difficult.
You can no longer simply bar the doors, or take the phone off the hook, to limit distractions in your own house. To do so, you must unplug completely, and thereby cut off your own access to news, personal contact, and entertainment. The old saying, “cutting off your nose to spite your face” comes to mind. Or “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” For modern parents, pulling the plug like this is much like its hospital counterpart: replete with lethal effects.
Unplugging computers or TVs alone will not do the job, because there are wireless systems everywhere, and cell phone data plans to supplement, when wireless is not available. The controls are no longer in the hands of the parent, to decide how the child spends his or her time, unless the parent is willing to have eyes-on-screen with the child, 24 hours a day.
The mobile devices offering cell service and the internet, combined, are something that children and teens have come to expect. All their friends have them. They are a safety measure, after all. To the young people, the services seem ubiquitous, like air, and equally comforting and necessary for survival. How can such an advance for human society have become the enemy of learning, the naughty friend who lures your child away from his books?
I suppose you could always cancel all internet and streaming and cell services. It is conceivable. You could also live in a log cabin with an outhouse.
Either way, you can be sure that no one in your family will thank you.
Neither a Borrower nor a Lender Be
- never forgot to send a thank you card
- never failed to remember a birthday
- never invited herself anywhere
- never forgot that she owed a lunch, or a dinner, or a book or a bicycle, in return for one she had borrowed.
Part of that mentality, I think, is about balancing the books. Making sure you are not a burden to anyone else. You should always make sure you are paying –at the very least—for your own upkeep and share in the expenses of life. If you go to stay overnight at a friend’s house, my mom would say, make it look, when you leave, as if you had never been there.
It is a kind of self-respect, a kind of independence, that our age seems to have sloughed off. You make sure to reciprocate–if possible– for the help you do receive. Instead of running the ball, by yourself, all the way to the end zone, you pass it back and forth.
And when you can’t reciprocate, you at least say thanks.
We define independence differently these days. Today you are independent if you rely on no one for help. If my main purpose in life is to get the best deal for myself, I will, inevitably, harm others. And never value their contribution enough to thank them.
It is like my daughter, the gardener, often says. We are living in an extreme DIY (do-it-yourself) culture.
How can you
- buy plants for your own garden
- seek out the best prices for yourself
- put them in on your own time, with the sweat of your own brow
and not, as a consequence, take a job away from someone else?
You saved a few pennies, yes, but you took a gig away from someone who has devoted their life to becoming good at that very thing. And to top it off, in comparison to their work, yours looks shabby and amateurish, because you so haphazardly put it together.
Amazing leaps in technology have allowed us to skip the middleman in so many transactions. We can look at the price of a house ourselves, and decide whether it is too much. No need for a realtor. We can make a will for ourselves using legal software. No need for a lawyer. We can do our own taxes. No need for an accountant.
We do this at our own peril, and with disastrous economic repercussions. There is no telling, whether we are botching any of these pursuits and thereby harming our own interests. But who cares? We did them ourselves!
Meanwhile we chip away at the livelihoods of people in our community.
By seeking out the lowest prices for everything, we also, unwittingly, encourage the consolidation of business interests. My generation remembers how, gradually, fast food came to replace Mom and Pop restaurants. Now, much the same thing seems to be happening in all sectors.
We are gradually cutting out, not only the middleman, but everyone, except the highest man on the totem pole.
The internet, which was once viewed as an agent of democracy, is morphing into an agent of monopoly. If we no longer have loyalty to the business person in our community, whom we could, at least, have an actual, concrete relationship with, how is he to compete with an ethereal internet conglomerate, which is not even loyal to a single country?
If we never accept help from others, or only by way of cheating them, to obtain help at a reduced price, we have no reason to say thank you. We–our cunning, our industry, our charm, our merit, our hours of searching the internet–are the reasons we received the benefit. The existence of another in the transaction is inconsequential. We convince ourselves that we did it alone.
The Fiction of Independence
Of course, the idea that we did it ourselves is a fiction.
There is not “no one there”, when we interact online. There are thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions. The internet has not made us more independent, but more interdependent.
- We owe the people who made the internet, those who gave up copyright royalties and put in long hours, and chose to share with us, for free, the fruits of their labors.
- We owe every server along the way, every network built, every researcher and scientist and programmer and inventor and politician that made this conglomeration of machines and software we call “communications” today, possible.
- We owe our parents, and our grandparents, and our contemporaries.
- We even owe our children, who adapt so easily to this new paradigm, and help ease our way through it.
Saying Thank You by Buying Local
The modern world economy has echoes of the old-style noblesse oblige. The exchange of money and goods is never a one-way street. We benefit from the work of others, who in turn depend on us for their livelihood. Whether our purchases are made here in our hometown or halfway round the globe: our buying habits help shape the world, for good or ill. The master or buyer has duties he owes to the servant or seller.
If we live in reasonably prosperous communities, with strong businesses that have spurred that prosperity over years and years, we owe those businesses our loyalty. If new businesses have sprung up and need our support to thrive, we should at least give them a chance to show us what they have to offer.
The internet is full of huge conglomerates, popping ads in our faces, like obnoxious bubble gum, demanding that we buy their goods, use their services. They do not ask politely. They demand. They demand that we help them prosper.
Huge sums are paid to get our attention. Huge sums are expended to convince us buy, out of guilt, or shame, or envy or greed. Meanwhile, the smallest players, those who live and breathe in our own towns and cities, the ones who need our help to survive, have to scream to be heard above the din.
I think we have forgotten, that the better part of politeness is saving your fellow man from the indignity of asking for help. By helping before they ask.
So check out your local businesses this holiday season. Actually walk inside a store you’ve never been in. Actually hire a local service or business to do work for you. Show your children that you know what it is to be grateful to the people who help your area to thrive. And when you finish the transaction, and receive a good product or service for a fair price, tell them Thank You. Out loud. In front of your children.
It’s only polite.
A Baltimorean Abroad
This made me think of one other thing – smile and say hello to people. When we lived in London, it’s almost a crime to look someone in the eye. I didn’t know anyone in my neighbourhood except for the lady across the hall in my building. There was one lady, however, around the corner. She usually left the same time I did and always smiled and said ‘good morning.’ It’s such a small thing, but also very human. I do it now in my new home in Frankfurt. Some people look at my like I’m a lunatic. Others actually smile back and a couple even chip in little things like ‘cold today, isn’t it?’ One person even talked to me on the U-Bahn. There is hope! 🙂
I agree, the little things can be so important. When you are new to a place it is important to come out of your shell and make the first moves socially. Others around you probably have their own local support network, so socially their plate may be full, so to speak. I found in Germany, at the university, where everyone was a bit uprooted, people were very friendly. And once you knew them, they would bend over backwards for you. It’s funny that in London, full of people we Americans imagine to be exceedingly polite, you should be so neglected. I guess politeness can be a barrier to closeness as well as a way to open the door to friendship.
Your comment on smiles reminds me of the Indian saying, The smile that you send out returns to you. Of course I’ve also been told that Americans smile too much! Thanks for dropping by!
The majority of today’s society seems to aspire to the laid back attitude of the 60’s where formality was frowned upon. Respect costs nothing!