29 Oct Where Are Your Manners? Part II

Recently, I received a thank-you card from a young man I’d done business with. I’m talking about a card made of paper, with a hand-written note, delivered by a mail carrier to the door of my house. That anybody nowadays would send personal correspondence this way is notable. That a younger person (i.e., 32) would send a thank-you card is surprising and very impressive.

My surprise is a measure of how our manners have changed. You may recall that, soon, I have to lead a discussion with college freshman about “civility.” As a colleague has reminded me: civility is a lot more than manners. Civility is the whole package: a high-minded notion of how we sustain the civitas — the community. Manners may be a starting point if we talk about why we should treat each other in ways that make the other feel good. But good manners don’t necessarily lead to civic-mindedness, much less to legislation that treats all people kindly, fairly,  or equally.

Jill suggested that I make a video of a young person who takes a cell phone call during a job interview. This has happened in real life; I’m sure you’ve heard of it. After showing the video, I might ask, “What is your reaction to this scenario?” It seems guaranteed to elicit snickers and eye-rolling. How could anybody be so clueless about professional behavior in a job interview? Eventually the point will surface that, when you’re at a job interview, you’re on somebody else’s turf, using their time and money, so you must attend first to their needs. In the abstract we could argue that there’s nothing rude about my taking a phone call if I allow you to do the same when your phone rings. In psychology, this is called parallel play — we share the same space but are not necessarily playing together: you do your thing, I do mine, and we come together only as opportunity and inclination allow.

Here’s a quiz: Why were Emily Post and her many editions of Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home so popular?

  1. People realized that they were rude and needed better manners.
  2. People believed that, if they learned the manners of the rich, they might get rich themselves.
  3. People were worried that their children were on “the highway to Hell.”
  4. People were tired of parallel play.

The dirty secret about etiquette is that it’s not absolute or timeless. It changes with time, circumstance, and culture. In many cultures it is a common practice to clear your nose in public by pressing a finger to one side of your nose and blowing out the unstoppered nostril. Courtesy in this instance is a matter of turning your head so that the spray does not hit your neighbor. Until recently, in some island nations of the Pacific, it was considered rude to applaud a performance. Clapping one’s hands was an expression of disapproval and disdain. Emily Post writes, “Considering manners even in their superficial aspect, no one . . . can fail to reap the advantage of a proper courteous and likable approach, or fail to be handicapped by an improper, offensive and resented one.” Okay, fine, but who determines what is “proper, courteous, and likable”?

If you consider the situation of the young person taking a phone call in a job interview, you can say she’s in the wrong because she ignores (is oblivious to) decades of well-established protocol. She is acting like a stranger in a strange land. She should know better. But you can also say that she’s in the wrong because she is presumptuous, even anarchic. She has decided to impose a decorum of her own when she has no power — no right — to do so. She forgets that the interviewers are in control–it’s their office and it’s their job opening.  They have the authority in this situation, she does not. This kind of power differential informs all etiquette.

Many of my colleagues prohibit their male students from wearing ball caps in class. These teachers insist that ball caps on the heads of students are distracting. I have yet to hear of an instance where a student wore, say, a fedora to class and was told to take it off. You may recall that until recently (circa 1965), virtually all men (all men in the white-collar workplace) wore hats. It was the custom to remove these hats when they entered a room. This custom did not apply to women, who could wear their hats anywhere indoors with impunity. There may come a time when men must wear hats indoors or else be deemed improperly dressed. In fact, I suspect that there are some cultures where this is the case. In the case of American teachers prohibiting male hat wear in class, it comes down to power: the teacher rules the class; students must do the teacher’s bidding. It doesn’t matter if the student is wearing the hat because he didn’t have time to wash his hair that morning (isn’t he being polite by covering up his greasy locks?). It doesn’t matter if wearing a hat is essential to this student’s sense of self. The teacher rules.

Such examples explain why so many of us confuse “etiquette” with “correctness.” Being “correct” is a matter of following the rules. Who makes the rules? Authorities make the rules. Following rules, behaving well, being polite often comes down to doing what the authorities demand you do. So here’s the half-million dollar question: What is a powerless youngster to do in an oppressive world of rules? First, learn to read the rules. More specifically, learn to read the rhetorical cues and clues that tell you the rules in any situation. Don’t assume that you know the rules in every instance. Or, more to the point, don’t assume that the rules you know are universal. No rules are universal. Etiquette is situational. That situation changes with age groups, social classes, and cultures. Acknowledging this much will make you a more sensitive, more caring person. It will also make you a more powerful person because this sensitivity will earn you more friends, more understanding, and more influence.

I know, I still haven’t gotten to the Civility part. And I have no idea how to convey what I’ve just said to freshmen, not to mention the fact that my colleagues may not want me to convey this idea anyway, i.e., authority dictates the standards of behavior and so we should learn to read the prevailing authority in every situation. Oh, and I still haven’t given you the answer to the quiz: #2.