Etiquette, Schmetiquette — Do Manners Still Matter? (Yes!)

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The definition of good manners, it’s been said, is making sure everyone feels comfortable. But, in an age of nano-niches, where it’s entirely possible to spend most of your leisure time — if not work — interacting only with people who abide by the same rules you think worthwhile (which may include having no rules,) how is that supposed to work?

The nature of social life, on-line and especially face to face, means dealing with a wide range of people, some of whose codes you may not know or may not care much about. As the French say, tant pis. Too bad. Just because you think leaving a used tampon on the bathroom floor or coughing into my face is cool, you’re wrong!

The recent death of etiquette expert Elizabeth Post marks for some the end of an era.

The publication of a new book by Derek Blasberg may mark the next. “Classy” is billed as a guide for the modern lady. The guy’s 27, so he still hasn’t been around the block too many times yet.

His advice includes items never to carry in your handbag: Food you spat out (!) Drugs or other illegal substances (where else, in your bra? Your bloodstream?) Stolen merchandise (excuse me?)

This is…not obvious?

Perhaps not.

Here are 10 rules that work for me:

When addressing anyone over the age of, say, 12, do not — as a receptionist at physical therapy recently did with me — say “What’s up?” Or “Wassup?” If you’re working behind a counter (I recently did 2+ years in retail), “Hello. How may I help you?” is a much better  choice. I am not your peep. I am your customer. I have other choices, and your boss(es) would be wise to remember this.

When leaving or entering a building or room, do not let the door slam behind you into the next person. No one is in that much of a hurry.

Cellphones and PDAs are not a heart defibrillator — those are actually surgically implanted. You can live without one for the time it takes to conduct a job interview, meet for a date (even a blind date or a first date [lest it become your last date], attend a wedding/bar/bat mitzvah/funeral/memorial service.

If someone is walking slowly, (not because they are selfishly staring into their PDA), and this is annoying you, do not push or shove them out of your way. They may be ill, tired or recovering from injury. Allow them the space and time they need. If this is simply too much, live in your limo.

When using public transit, move quickly to the back to make room for everyone else. There are multiple doors and the operative word is public.

When you receive an invitation to a private social event, no matter how tedious you deem it, give the courtesy of a reply, promptly. Do not cancel at the last minute unless you or a loved one is very ill. Don’t just show up with anyone you haven’t mentioned is coming along; your host/ess may well have devoted serious time, money, thought and energy to this moment. Ignoring these efforts is like throwing a gift in someone’s face.

Thank-you notes, written in ink on a lovely card or personal stationery, are not the mark of a dinosaur but someone with…yes…class. So few people even bother to thank anyone, in any medium, you’ll stand out for miles by being so thoughtful.

Send flowers. Or bring them. Do it often. Unless your recipient is allergic, they are an affordable grace note.

When seated at a dinner table with others who are new to you, converse with them. Ask questions, nicely. Do not blather on about yourself endlessly, because, really, how interesting could they possibly be? Very, if you graciously inquire about their hobbies or pets or latest travel or favorite music. Do not use the tedious crowbar of: “So what do you do?” within the first three sentences; what if they’re unemployed? (See: make everyone comfortable.)

As they say in journalism — when in doubt, leave it out. If you think (as you must, always, before you speak) a joke or comment might offend, skip it. What’s the upside?

12 thoughts on “Etiquette, Schmetiquette — Do Manners Still Matter? (Yes!)

  1. citifieddoug

    I agree with this. The fact that manners vary doesn’t mean they don’t matter and listening is a good skill the world around.

  2. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks. Not to mention all the cross-cultural gaffes one can easily make — like touching some Asian natives on the top of their head (considered extremely rude, seen in the great new film “Gran Torino”) or giving the *wrong* color or number of flowers.

  3. inmyhumbleopinion

    May I add another?

    Amazingly, not everyone is as into hip-hop or rap music as you are, and just because you have speakers in your car the size of VW Beetles does not give you the right to blare them at bass levels loud enough to cause broken windows from the vibration.

    Similarly, if you are a parent of a child traveling on an airplane and your little darling must play that beeping, buzzing, tweeting portable game console, do the rest of us a favor and buy him/her headphones. Please.


  4. Caitlin Kelly

    We could start a long flame-filled thread with the many ways parents (who I truly think are so tired, distracted or deafened by their infants they are in some multi-year haze) do not get the notion that not everyone finds their kids’ shrieking cute or cool. Let Junior try out their new lungs outside. Colic, we get. After that, short of a snowstorm in February or an airplane mid-flight, there needs to be some understanding that shared space means some of us need quiet enjoyment of that place.

    Like…say…church? Our church has a “crying room” (where you can still fully hear the rest of the service) where your babies and kids can scream their heads off, but not in our ears.

    1. inmyhumbleopinion

      I think you give many of them too much credit. No, in our parents’ day, crying kids in public were immediately whisked out of stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and places of worship so as not to disturb others or cause a scene. While I understand in today’s world it’s not acceptable to banish kids to the car for safety reasons, there’s certainly no reason why Mom or Dad can’t simply leave, rather than indulge the kid’s meltdown. But alas, we live in an age of wimpy parenting and are suffering the consequences because of it.

  5. john

    I have a phone thing and it is simply to not answer it when we are in a conversation. I have never understood how phone trumps real live person who is already talking to you. Especially at home. My parents still think it is outrageous that I rarely answer the phone, but when they are here and have my attention, I think they like the fact that I will not break it just because I hear the phone.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    This, my dears, is why I love you.

    The essential notion is that we share space and we all need quiet and undivided attention some of that time. Why it is now quaint to insist upon this truly escapes me.

    When I worked retail the kids who were consistently very well-behaved — and firmly and quietly disciplined at once when not — were always Europeans, either recently moved here or visiting. The American kids and parents thought nothing of running, shrieking and leaving their half-chewed food all over the floor.

    John, I agree. I see this behavior and it seems very odd that someone disembodied far away (unless there is a medical crisis in process) trumps the very real person in front of us. I loathe cellphones for this reason and usually “lose” mine most of the time.

    1. geekysarah

      I would also like to add using a cellphone loudly on public transit. Those of us riding the bus/train do not want to hear every detail of your encounter with the bus boy you met at the bar last night. We also do not want to hear every minute detail behind your impending divorce. I could add more, but really, it shouldn’t be that hard to use the phone at a reasonable volume, or heaven forbid wait until you’ve reached your destination to have the conversation.

  7. Caitlin Kelly

    Fruz, you said well! My sweetie has very good manners, or he would never have become or stayed my partner. It really does matter to me, and clearly to others still.

  8. jeanatthedelightfulrepast

    I was sorry to learn of Elizabeth Post’s death. When I was a little girl, I enjoyed reading her column in my mother’s Good Housekeeping magazine every month. Caitlin, your witty but I-mean-business comments on modern manners, or the lack thereof, were spot on. Life is so much easier and more pleasant when we, and those around us, do the kind thing rather than the expedient thing; when we consider other people’s needs to be just as important as our own; when we do not allow the modern addiction to electronic devices to interfere with our interactions with real-live-right-there-on-the-spot people.

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    jean, thanks for your kind words. I really see this living in NY where people are often utterly and *deliberately* oblivious to the needs of those around them, even if “only” for silence or privacy or a shred of personal space. If I pretend you simply don’t exist, there’s no need to accommodate you…

    I am, I admit, often quite rude if I see someone walking toward me, head down, TOTALLY unwilling to even look up from their PDA so we can all get out their way, and shout: “Do NOT walk into me!” I’ll probably get shot one of these days.

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