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Where Are Our Manners?

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As I crammed myself onto a crowded train this morning, I noticed there was a very pregnant woman standing near me, jammed in tightly and hanging on for dear life. I looked at the passengers sitting in the seats that are supposed to be surrendered to the elderly, physically challenged, and other people who need to sit, and all of them were listening to iPods. Most of them were also texting or reviewing email, one person was reading on a Kindle, and two people were watching movies. Not one of them even looked up; everyone was too absorbed in what they were listening to, reading, or watching to even notice the protruding belly and flushed face of the pregnant passenger.


Over the past few years, there have been countless discussions on minding our manners within our new modes of communication. Is it rude to text someone and ask him on a date? When is it appropriate to forward an email? Do we befriend someone on a social networking site we’ve only met once?


But while we’ve been debating the dos and don’ts of technology etiquette, it appears that many of us have forgotten some of the old school manners that our parents, grandparents, and teachers taught us—manners that have nothing to do with a keyboard or a monitor, but have everything to do with the long-forgotten Golden Rule. Maybe technology has eroded our brains so much that we can never go back to those golden days, but there are a few simple courtesies that I’d like to see make a comeback.


Hold doors for people.
This doesn’t just mean men holding doors for women—anyone who has the arm strength to hold a door for someone should. Holding a door shows that we’re paying attention to what’s going on around us and that we care about others even if they’re a complete stranger. That little bit of awareness also helps take our minds off the busy, crappy day we might be having. Plus, it’s a nice and unexpected way to pay it forward, kind of like smiling at a stranger. Hold the door for someone and someone else will hold it for you later.


Give up seats.
Lizzie Post, great-great granddaughter of Emily Post and author of How Do You Work This Life Thing?, says this is one practice she’d like to see happen more often. “Giving up your seat to someone is so easy. Even when people don’t accept your offer, I think it’s nice to get up and stay standing so they know you’re sincere. The more that we become the good example, the more it will catch on.”


Most of us were taught that it’s good manners to give up our seat to the elderly, pregnant, and physically challenged. But if we pay attention on trains, buses, in waiting areas, and other places where people stand, we might notice someone else outside those categories who could also use a seat—like someone carrying a bulky box or a heavy load of groceries. Common sense should prevail; if you see a situation where you think you’d prefer to sit, it’s a good idea to offer your seat.


Let those inside the elevator exit before you enter.
You know the scene. The elevator doors open and a crowd of people waiting to get on rushes toward you, making it difficult to get out. Post says the onus of politeness falls on those waiting for an elevator, meaning they should clear the exit path for anyone getting off and not enter the elevator until it’s clear. She also recommends that waiting until all people exit is a good rule to follow before entering anything—restaurants, shops, dressing rooms, etc.


Mind your telephone manners.
Our chief etiquette concern back in the “olden” days of telephones was remembering to write down a message when someone called. Now that we can take our phones anywhere and use them to do scores of things beyond just making telephone calls, our problems have spiraled out of control. Obnoxious ringtones, picking up calls in public places, sending a text message when a call would be more appropriate, and subjecting innocent bystanders to inappropriate conversations are just a few common telephone missteps.




But Post says that many of our phone snafus could be corrected if we’d follow one simple rule. “Excusing yourself to take a phone call in a private place is something I’d like to see more of. We’re so used to people being on the phone now that this isn’t a common practice anymore.” But what if we we’re in a place where we can’t step out to take a call? Post recommends to keep it brief and to keep the conversation appropriate. “Making plans is okay,” she says. “[But] if you’re gossiping, talking badly about someone, or saying something inappropriate, those should be closed-door conversations.”


Introduce people.
In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget’s friend Shazza nails it when she advises Bridget to “introduce people with thoughtful detail.” Walking up to a group of people and never getting introduced is awkward and rude. This is often a sign that the person who should do the introductions has forgotten a name, which makes a great case for simply asking the person in question to tell you their name again. It also proves that introducing someone with some details and flair makes a difference; the person on the receiving end of the introduction will have more information to use when committing a name to memory.


Say please, thank you, and you’re welcome.
It sounds simple, but the magic words really do work magic. Using them shows our appreciation for what someone is about to do or has done for us. Says Post, “Pretty much everyone says thank you, which is fantastic. But I would love to hear more people use ‘please’ and ‘you’re welcome.’ If I say ‘thank you’ back to you and not ‘you’re welcome,’ that’s overriding your ‘thank you.’” Our moms weren’t just being cute when they told us we would catch more flies with honey. “Please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” are some of the sweetest—and most useful—words in our language.


Respect elders.
Recently someone I know well surprised me by saying that he thought respecting our elders was a silly courtesy since not everyone deserves to be respected just because of his or her age. Touché. But how about simply showing them civility and common courtesy? An elder is, by definition, someone who has lived longer than we have, so they’ve accumulated more experiences and thus, more wisdom. We don’t have to agree with their wisdom, but acknowledging that there might be some helpful information that comes from their experience is nice. It’s also considerate to express gratitude to a related elder who helped pave the way and/or care for you or a family member who came before you, such as a mother or uncle.


Handwrite thank-you notes.
Paper correspondence in general seems to be a dying practice and unfortunately, handwritten thank-you notes are part of the casualties. I know I’m often guilty of sending a thank-you email when I’m pressed for time, which seems to have made its way on the list of accepted practices. But it’s that taking of time that really shows our appreciation. Anyone can send an email, but finding a nice piece of stationery or note card, handwriting our thanks, finding a stamp (who has those anymore?), and then getting to a mailbox to actually send it goes above and beyond in expressing our gratitude.


Sophisticated technology doesn’t mean that good manners have to be a thing of the past. In fact, Post says she defines good manners using three simple, everyday principles: consideration, respect, and honesty. “Apply those to any situation and toward all the people involved—including yourself—and [the solution] will make sense.”


Updated July 28, 2009

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