19 Oct Where Are Your Manners?

Three weeks from today, I’m supposed to lead a discussion on “civility” with 150 college freshmen. I’m not convinced that college freshmen understand the word “civility,” much less have anything to say about it. This is not to disparage college freshmen. It is only to point out that the notion of civility isn’t of much interest in daily conversation nowadays, unless, that is, you’re talking to older folk. By older, I mean anybody over forty. The older generation believes that youngsters today have no manners. I am reminded of that song from Bye, Bye, Birdy: “Kids! What’s the matter with kids today?”

I have opinions on the matter. So I volunteered to lead this discussion on behalf of my colleagues, most of whom are Baby Boomers. We Boomers were taught our manners. We says things like, “May I help you?” and “Could you, please?” and “Yes” and “Excuse me” “Thank you!” Most of us were taught to open doors for the elderly and to write thank-you notes too. Remarkable stuff, I know. This explains why so many Boomers are grumbling about how insensitive young people are these days. Oldsters have reason to complain. It’s not unusual for us teachers to get an email from a student that opens with “Hey.” No name, just “Hey.” As my fifth grade teacher used to tells us when we attempted a similar address: “Hay is for horses.”

The students I work with are privileged, quite sweet, and as polite a bunch as you’ll meet in their generation. They don’t mean to be rude. But what we expect of them isn’t what they expect of each other. And there lies the first rub. The irony here is that their parents are Boomers. So what went wrong? When it comes to emails, the answer is simple: who’s teaching anybody about the proper usage of emails? Are you? Emails have seemed so inconsequential — so trivial as to be beneath our notice — that parents and teachers have not taken it upon themselves to teach email decorum the way they used to teach the decorum of letter writing.

As for face-to-face interactions, we must acknowledge that public life has grown considerably more relaxed these last few decades. People used to wear suits and ties, dresses and heels, when they flew on airplanes. Dads on TV were often depicted wearing ties and white shirts at the family dinner table. In real life, adults had little to say to children–there was a huge divide between young and old, which led to a very formal exchange when the two sides met. All of that is gone. My students call me “Ron” because I like it that way. This is a product of the Boomers’ anti-authoritarian legacy. Young people, for the most part, are quite comfortable around adults. That’s a good thing. But it comes at a cost. We can’t expect them to say “sir” or “ma’am” or “mister” or “ms” if, on the other hand, we want them to be cool and fun and hang out with us.

Just last week, I was startled at a business dinner when the young woman to my right halted my hand as I reached for my bread plate. “I think that’s mine,” she said. “Dry plates on the left, wet on the right.” Looking to my left, I saw that there was an empty bread plate waiting for my use. I confessed to the young woman that I know very little about table manners. Sure, my parents taught me to 1) keep my mouth shut when I chewed my food, 2) keep my napkin in my lap, and 3) keep my elbows off the table, but they didn’t instruct me in the intricacies of table settings. The young woman in question revealed that, before graduating from college with a degree in computer science, she was compelled to take a course in business etiquette. I’d never heard of such a thing and was thoroughly impressed.

The point here is that, if you want manners, you’ve got to teach manners. And, unless you are trying to help remedy the perceived problem, you have little right to complain about it. A common complaint I hear is that youngsters don’t say “You’re welcome” anymore. In answer to a thank-you, they’ll say, “No problem” or “No worries” or “Yup!” I must confess, that last reply sets me on-edge. Yup? It is possible that, due to increasing pressure to be cool at all times, young people are loathe to submit themselves to “you’re welcome.” It may sound too goody-goody. Or simply old-fashioned, which is the same thing.

When I was ten, I walked into a small store to buy a PayDay, my favorite candy bar at the time. When the big man behind the counter asked what I wanted, I said, “A PayDay!” He looked down at me with some consternation and asked again: “What do you want?” Again I made my request. Then he said: “A PayDay?” “Yes,” I said, for I was always taught to say “yes” instead of “yeah.” The big man’s face darkened, then he leaned over the counter and bellowed: “You come back when you learn some manners! Then maybe you can buy a Pay Day!” Shocked, and in tears, I rushed out of the store. But my tears weren’t only for my humiliation, they were for my outrage. I had said “yes” but the big man had wanted “yes, sir” and very likely “Yes, sir, please!” And he deserved this because he was . . . a grown-up?

When a young couple forgets to send us a thank-you note (email will do) after Jill and I have invited them over for dinner, I try not to take it personally. I tell myself this is a different world than the one I grew up in. That doesn’t mean I’m happy about it. I — we — need these gestures. All “good manners” have but one aim: to make each of us feel good. I want to feel valued by others and, in turn, I want to make others feel valued. That’s all it comes down to. So it’s a wonder that we all want this, but don’t know how to deliver it consistently, if at all. I think of the smiley-face emoticon that is so commonly used in young people’s emails. I resisted using the smiley emoticon for years because I thought it childish. But finally I did use it because nothing else would convey the reassurance that my reader deserved. So now I wonder if there may be more than a few social situations among youngsters that we oldsters would botch and, as a result, be called rude.

As you see, I’m thinking out loud. It’s a daunting topic. I have yet to talk about etiquette books. Could such a thing exist today? Aren’t some of our most popular reality shows — from the Super Nanny to Survivor — based on violations of good manners and our insistence that something be done about it? Allow me to beg your pardon for now and return to this topic next week.