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The etiquette gap: From Newt and Mitt to Facebook and texting

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"Those rules free us. They create order and prevent chaos," she says, likening them to signs on a one-way street. "And they also provide a forum for skepticism and dissent.... Once you understand them and respect them, you learn how to operate within them, and when to break them."

The well-heeled ladies who founded the Saturday Club on Philadelphia's Main Line 125 years ago didn't need a consultant to train them in the social graces. From childhood, they'd absorbed the dos and don'ts of civility and manners – some at the knees of their nannies, others from a conscientious schoolmarm or a strict family dinner table. But in 1995, the club saw the traditional imparters of social education weakening and instituted a formal introduction to it via a cotillion for children.

It's not just the kids being rude, it's the parents as well, says Jeanne Dechiario, president of the club: "You hear so many people saying 'I'm going to do the best for myself,' and 'I'm going to do the best for my kid.' My goal is to make them realize there are other people around."

The Saturday Club considers social education to be on par with other essentials of child rearing. But, says Ms. Dechiario, it is getting short shrift because the traditional training ground of the family dinner is rushed, if it exists at all, and because test-score-obsessed schools are hard pressed to fit even the basics of "please" and "thank you" into a packed curriculum. While there may be white gloves and dancing at its cotillion, the club sees the program as preparation for good citizenship, not high society.

Universities and corporations routinely offer training in manners to boost career and business success, and now some school districts are beginning to get into the act, much to the delight of P.M. Forni. The director of the Johns Hopkins University Civility Initiative in Baltimore and author of books on civility cites a 2011 Weber Shandwick poll that revealed that more than three-fourths of Americans believe social education should be taught in schools.

Civility, he says, is a cornerstone of the civic foundation. Lack of it can make things unstable: He sees it as a buffer against violence and an influence on public perceptions of political leaders.

Professor Forni explains that many of the estimated 1.8 million incidents of workplace violence a year – from a shove to a shooting – often have their origin in incivility, a lack of consideration for others.

"When you are on the receiving end of an act of incivility, of a slight, or when someone treats you rudely, in 40 percent of cases you will think about changing jobs. In 13 percent of cases you will change jobs," he says.

Fully two-thirds of Americans believe incivility to be a major problem, the Weber Shandwick poll shows, and half expect it to become the norm. A whopping 72 percent of those questioned say they have tuned out politics because of incivility shown there. Indeed, a January Monitor TIPP poll found that 80 percent of Americans think it's wrong to be uncivil, even in pursuit of an end they think is right.

Never, never say 'drapes'

Manners change with the times, and they differ by region and social group.

In the Middle Ages, for instance, people were admonished not to spit across the table or urinate in corridors. By 1945, Emily Post was writing that it would be "an inexcusable vulgarism" to use the word "drapes," instead of "curtains."

Some niceties evolve and others wane. A man may no longer automatically give up his seat for a pregnant woman, but he is more likely to take her seriously at work. While a formal foreigner may consider saying "good morning" to his bus driver to be too casual, an American might see it as basic courtesy. Up north, using first names may be common. "Down south it's sir and ma'am, straight up," says Lizzie Post. While some people wouldn't so much as whisper a swear word, in some circles they won't trust you unless you curse.

In this fluid state of interpersonal relations, a working knowledge of the finer points of etiquette doesn't hurt, but it's not essential either. Showing respect is key, experts agree. To Lizzie Post this often means defaulting to convention: "In public, it's always a good idea to defer to what would make people around you comfortable."

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