Many Americans believe civility has hit a new low

By Craig Wilson and Maria Puente, USA Today – 05/28/2000 – 12:00am


A test of courtesy

Remember the blushing bride who used to send thank-you notes for every gift she received? What aisle is she walking down these days?

What about the guy who used to give up his bus seat to the pregnant woman? Did he leave the country?

Just the other day, in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., what would have been
unthinkable a few years ago happened. A man was laying on his horn to clear traffic out of his way. The traffic was a funeral procession. And don’t even get us going on people who talk in movies, or carry everything they own onto planes.

Good manners, it appears, have gone the way of white gloves, top hats and Sir Walter Raleigh. Like men in capes, they have become a thing of the past.

Spend any afternoon at the mall watching teenagers trample slow-moving senior citizens, and you have to ask: What happened to the gracious days of “please” and “thank you”?

“Like a lot of people, I’ve been stunned by the collapse of civility,” said Alex Packer, author of “How Rude! The Teenagers’ Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior and Not Grossing People Out.” “I lay the blame at the feet of the adults. Manners are taught.”
Packer believes the decline began three decades ago when people started “doing their own thing.” “Our obsession with individualism began back then, and you add to that mix changes in demographics, like more divorce, more latchkey kids, diminishing parental involvement, and you pretty much have the collapse of a lot of institutions in America, good manners among them.”

A recent U.S. News & World Report study found that 89 percent of Americans feel civility has hit a new low and that we’re ready for a change.

The manners issue that has most San Franciscans in a snit these days is cell phones.

Radio talk-show hosts and newspaper columnists regularly rail against them, The San Francisco Chronicle has run two editorials recently urging people to be more considerate, and Mayor Willie Brown chews out his staffers whenever cell phones go off around him. He’s calling on the state to increase penalties against motorists involved in accidents while talking on cell phones.

When news leaked that the Bay Area Rapid Transit , which runs the San Francisco subway system, planned to install antennas in its stations and tunnels so phone fanatics could use them underground, outraged calls, letters and e-mail messages poured in. Now there’s a growing commuter movement to ban cell phones from public transit in the city.

Some restaurants are following that lead. But not all. At Napa Valley’s French Laundry, one of the best – and therefore hardest to get into – restaurants in the country, diners were startled recently when a cell phone rang, attracting attention in the intimate setting. But there was real annoyance when a woman answered it and began talking loudly – cell yell, it’s called – about a real estate deal.

“People were turning around and glaring,” said Elizabeth Charles, a San Francisco therapist who was at a nearby table. “You wait months to get into this restaurant, the food is incredible, but then something like this happens. It was so rude.”

Almost as rude as being late for a luncheon date. Motivational speaker and syndicated columnist Harvey Mackay says he wants to start a campaign to return good manners to business. “Wouldn’t it be great if all your meetings and appointments started on time because nobody was late?” he asks. “Punctuality is just good manners.”

But those in the workplace have grown accustomed to bad manners. “I was at Apple (Computer) for 11 years and saw a lot of things that were disturbing,” said Sue
Fox, now head of Etiquette Survival, Inc., a business consulting firm, and author of “Etiquette For Dummies.” And the soon to be released “Business Etiquette For Dummies.” “I’m doing now what our parents did 40 years ago. “One of her clients, for instance, insists on interviewing candidates for executive jobs over a meal,
just to see how good their table manners are. “Manners are about self-respect and respecting others and making people feel comfortable,” Fox said.

“But somewhere along the way, we got too busy and too self-absorbed, and it’s certainly showing now in our children.” And adults. She tells the story of a man in New York who recently knocked her over to get to the door of a deli first. “I wasn’t even shocked,” she said, “and that’s what’s sad about all this.”

A more disconcerting thing happened in downtown Minneapolis earlier this month, when an elderly woman fell on the sidewalk in front of Zelo, a trendy bistro on Nicollet Mall. A group of middle-aged men gathered to stare, but only after more than 30 seconds did a young woman, dressed in Gothic garb, step forward to help.

Steven Michael Selzer, author of “By George! Mr. Washington’s Guide to Civility Today,” thinks the “enemy of civility is self-absorption.”

“You know, when you’re civil to other people, it comes back to you,” Selzer said. “Civility is the WD-40 of life. It lubricates everything.”

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