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Education > Little Missed Manners

1989 — In Sister Fitzwilliam’s “Courtesy Class,” I learned how to safely hand someone a pair of scissors before I could tie my shoe. I could recite a laundry list of appropriate times for “please” and “thank you” before my little kid lisp was corrected. I was warned about the consequences of not putting napkins in my lap, and programmed to keep my hands to myself.

1999 — Ten years later I was blind-sided when the metaphorical milk truck ran over my first puppy love. How could I have been treated so badly? Didn’t he care about hurting my feelings? My grandmother tried to reassure me that chivalry wasn’t dead and all boys weren’t fickle. But I’d had my world rocked. In a sea of hormone-driven, belching, greasy-haired high school freshmen guys, I was skeptical. My faith in decency and manners was shaken.

2009 — After a rough and tumble day in the nitty gritty city, I stop into Leland Liquors to buy a bottle of wine. A sign on the door gives me pause, “No cell phones. They are vexing and insolent.” I cease my Twittering and proceed with curiosity and a bit of caution.

It has been twenty years since I first heard the term “common courtesy.” Sadly, most of the times I’ve heard it since then, it has been preceded by phrases like “what ever happened to . . .”, and “hey, Buddy, have you ever heard of . . .” Frequently, the sentiment is expressed in much more “colorful” language.

I, too, am guilty of this kind of thinking. Two hours a day spent on Chicago public transportation has shown me just how rude and revolting some people can be. A sign displayed on every bus or subway says, “No eating, drinking, or radio playing.” Someone needs to do us all a favor and add “snacking, smack-talking, screaming, or subjecting people to your foul language and questionable musical taste.”

Just as I am about to give the Cheeto-dust spewing loud-mouth next to me a piece of my mind (in a perky and polite manner), I see something that makes me re-think the whole issue. A multi-pierced, frightfully clad young man just offered his seat to a pregnant woman. A few stops later, an average “girl next door” type offers to help a stranger hold a cumbersome package on a rocky patch of sidewalk. Are manners really dead or simply hibernating?

Chicago, itself, is an interesting mix of big city attitude and midwestern neighborliness. I decided, therefore, to research the trends in a place know for its “hell if I care” mindset—New York City. It turns out that Reader’s Digest had already done all the work for me, and then some. They sent reporters to thirty-five cities, from Mumbai to Milan, and gave them three simple tests to try on unsuspecting people. First was the document drop—Will people help pick up documents dropped by another? Second was the door test—Will others hold it open or open it for you? The third test was service—Is it really with a smile? Remarkably, four out of five New Yorkers passed these “courtesy checks,” earning New York City the title of “most mannerly city in the world.”

Before you smugly pat yourself on the back, consider that the same Reader’s Digest article cited a study of US adults which revealed that 70% of those surveyed think people are ruder now than they were twenty years ago.

I grabbed my cell phone and speed-dialed my mother to ask her what the world was like when I was five. And then it hit me! I was holding a leading civility-killing culprit in my hand. I instantly flashed back to Leland Liquors. Perhaps the truth is not that chivalry is dead or manners are extinct, but that they are lost in a sea of cell phone ring tones, “crackberry” comas, and iPod beats. As the world races to keep up with technology, these niceties are simply being lost in the (non iPod) shuffle.

Cell phones and PDAs have been addictive, plaguing the dinner table and boardroom alike. Mid-meal texting can put a damper on any dinner, and mid-meeting Googling could cost you your job. Although we live in an age that values multitasking, both send the impression that you just are not interested enough to fully invest in the talk or topic at hand. And, although it may seem vitally important for you to loudly critique your lover’s newest failing that very minute, others in your immediate vicinity most likely prefer being spared the details. Cell phones are meant to connect the voices of two people, but more often than not, innocent bystanders can’t help but overhear the exchange. Speakerphone has thrown privacy out the window. That walkie-talkie function on some phones may mean the death of decorum all together.

Music players are not music to most people’s ears. I enjoy my sound-tracked commute as much as the next person, but too often I can’t hear my own music because of the noise emanating from four iPods away. Are we are all going slowly deaf trying to drown out each other’s din?

Cell phones and MP3 players aren’t the only devices to blame. I love my computer, but these days so much emphasis is put on social networking, it seems like people aren’t actually connecting at all. This year I got an e-card on my birthday from one of my best friends. Most of my other buddies only remembered because Facebook reminded them. I must confess that I just sent a thank you note via email. I spend more time in video chats with the people that I love than face to face with them.

What can be done to return us to some measure of civility? In lieu of bringing back the curtsy and mandating classes in conduct, there are a few things that ought to make the world a bit more civil (cell phones and all.)

1) Go back to the basics.
Think you are a mannerly person? Step it up a notch. Make up for your neighbor (and your Twitter addiction) by going the extra mile. Challenge yourself to make the use of “please” and “thank you” a habit. Once you master that, dare yourself to mean it. Be a shining, chivalrous example of old-school charm. Hold doors, lend a helping hand, and mind your manners not just when it’s easy or convenient.

2) Notice and relish the sound of silence.
Schedule technology-free times. Mandate a family moratorium on TV, video games, or surfing the Internet. Befriend “off” buttons. They shall set you free.

3) Watch your language.
If we are going to be subjected to hearing other’s conversations, it will benefit all of us to clean up our speech. Potty mouths are trendy and many of us have become desensitized to words our grandmothers wouldn’t dream of using. Face it. Vulgarity is offensive to a lot of people and horrible for kids to overhear. Textspeak (OMG, LOL, TTYL, etc.) may single handedly slaughter the English language if we let it. There is a reason abbreviations are in admissible in Scrabble and college papers.

4) Pay attention.
Make a conscious effort to notice and appreciate shining examples of good manners each day. Send good thoughts to the silently reading stranger sharing your park bench. Make eye contact with the person holding the door for you as you thank them.

Like most positive traits, courtesy is a complicated recipe of generosity, kindness, gentleness, patience, compassion, empathy, kind-heartedness, and tolerance. It should be appreciated for the self-less gesture that it truly is. I am determined to make a mental note every time I see a cute guy say, “Excuse me.” If I foster enough courage, I just might compliment him for it and strike up a conversation about whether or not he thinks chivalry is dead or manners are making a comeback—but that’s a different topic for a different noisy bus ride.

2010 New Perspectives. Permission to copy this article is granted provided the author is notified and the following bio information is included:

Annie Passanisi, co-creator of SPARK magazine, is a Chicago-based actor, singer, writer, marketer, and polka dot enthusiast. Her passion for applied positive psychology has led her to join her award-winning professional speaking mother on the platform. For more information, please visit www.TheAnniePassanisi.co