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Good Manners — Your Way

By Deborah Pike, Ladies Home Journal – 08/15/2005 – 12:00am

Our high-tech, stressed-out society can make civility hard to come by. Here’s a guide to courtesy in the 21st century.

New Technology, New Rules
It’s the scene the movie audience has been waiting for: the high-speed car chase with the special effects. Just as it’s beginning, a cell phone rings in the theater, and a guy answers it and starts arguing with his girlfriend.

Do you mind your manners when using a cell phone?
You’ve been waiting patiently in the 10-items-or-less line at the grocery store, and you notice the person ahead of you is taking a long time to check out. No wonder — she has at least 20 things in her cart.

You’ve been on hold for 45 minutes with the phone company. When the customer-service representative answers your call, she gets snippy and hangs up. You call back, and the rep is unapologetic.

Unfortunately, these scenarios are all too familiar these days. Once upon a time, when there was a question of etiquette, people simply turned to Emily Post. But today, many of the old rules no longer apply, and new rules for how to deal with conveniences like cell phones and beepers, not to mention problems like stress and divorce, have yet to be written. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last summer, 78 percent of respondents said that rude behavior has increased in recent years. And a recent Pacific Bell Wireless survey shows that 60 percent of people think it’s more unpleasant to sit next to someone talking on a cell phone in a movie theater than to visit the dentist.

There are other reasons our society seems so crass. We don’t know our neighbors as well as we used to, so we lack the social ties that tend to foster good manners. And despite the fact that being polite is part of the job description for the employees of coffee shops, airlines and stores, the tight labor market of recent years has meant that it’s difficult to find the right people. And these workers complain — with good reason — about nasty customers.

Making the courtesy crisis even worse is that people are more stressed and angrier than ever these days. They feel they have a right to get what they want when they want it, even if it means being rude. And if you call them on their behavior, you run the risk of them lashing out at you — or worse.

Expert Advice on Etiquette Dilemmas
To resolve some of today’s most perplexing etiquette dilemmas, LHJ turned to modern etiquette experts. Here’s their advice:
A man is talking loudly on his cell phone on a crowded commuter train. You’re sitting across the aisle from him. What can you say? “We wouldn’t recommend being a wiseacre to anyone on a commuter train because you never know what they might do if they’ve had a particularly bad day,” advise Lesley Carlin and Honore Ervin, also known as the Etiquette Grrls, authors of Things You Need to Be Told: An Etiquette Manifesto (Tarcher/Putnam, 2002). “You might, however, ask the man if he would mind speaking more softly. If he doesn’t pipe down, you can either move to a different car or keep your fingers crossed that he ends the call, loses the signal or gets off the train soon. It’s awful, but there’s not a lot you can do about it.”

Even though e-mail is faster, write a note instead.
A friend took you out for your birthday and gave you a lovely scarf. Can you e-mail her a thank-you note? “A friend who has been thoughtful deserves more than just the quickest possible form of reply,” say the Etiquette Grrls. “Write a real thank-you note. Putting pen to paper is the best way to show you truly appreciate her gift. You might use e-mail to thank someone for a small favor (for instance, a friend who gives you a lift to the post office while your car is being repaired).”

When is it okay to ask to borrow someone’s cell phone? “People always say, ‘May I borrow your cell phone?’ yet they rarely pay you for the call,” says Fox. “It’s inconsiderate, so don’t do it — unless there’s an emergency or you know the person’s wireless plan permits unlimited calls for the same monthly price.”

Is it rude to call a friend with an unimportant question on her cell phone? “That depends on the sort of cell-phone user your friend is,” say the Etiquette Grrls. “If she uses the phone only for business purposes, it’s rude to make her think that her boss or another important person is trying to reach her when it’s just you, wondering if you should go blond. Also, many people own cell phones only for use in emergencies or while traveling and don’t wish to incur air-time charges for friendly conversations. If, however, your pal has said that she prefers to be reached on her cell, then it’s okay to call with a trivial question.”

What’s the best way to cut off a never-ending e-mail conversation? Wrap things up tactfully, suggest the Etiquette Grrls. “You could say, ‘This has been an interesting exchange, but I’m afraid I have to get back to work now. Why don’t we talk later in the week?’ Or you can mention that you’re running out to lunch. Of course, you can always stop responding once the conversation appears to be petering out.”

How long do you have to respond to someone’s e-mail? You should get back to the person within a day — or at least acknowledge that you received the e-mail, says Mary Mitchell, also known as Ms. Demeanor, who writes a syndicated column for young adults and is an etiquette expert at If the message is chatty, just say you loved the note and you’ll get back soon.

Society Under Stress
The father of one of the boys on your child’s soccer team is constantly screaming profanities on the sidelines. What do you say? “Proceed with caution,” advise the Etiquette Grrls. “The man is probably looking for a fight. You could say, ‘Please, Mr. So-and-So, there are children present,’ but you’re probably better off having a word with the coach, who should know to have a private conversation with this man and any other obnoxious parents regarding inappropriate behavior.” In addition, take an activist approach and write a letter to the head of the league expressing your concern.

What can you say to someone who uses the treadmill at the gym long past her time limit? “Take a ‘just-the-facts, ma’am’ approach,” says Jonathan C. Smith, Ph.D., director of the Roosevelt University Stress Institute, in Chicago. “You could say, ‘You’ve been on the treadmill for the past half hour. I’m impressed with your stamina, but the sign over there says there’s a 20-minute limit during peak periods. If I could use the treadmill in the next five minutes, I’d be grateful.”

Your child has a friend whose parents are more permissive than you are when it comes to surfing the Internet and watching TV. How can you make sure your child is not exposed to things you disapprove of when he’s at his friend’s home, without offending the parents? Communicate honestly but diplomatically, suggests Sue Fox, an etiquette consultant and author of Etiquette for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, 2000). “Talk to the friend’s parents. Let them know you have certain rules in your home and that you’re sure they do, too. You could say something like, ‘I know you’re vigilant, but I want to make sure the kids aren’t alone when they’re at the computer or watching TV.’ If your concerns are communicated without insinuating that they’re too permissive, they’ll probably honor your request.”

Are you guilty of the dreaded double-dip? You just saw someone double-dip (take a bite out of a dip-laden chip, then dip it in the salsa again), and you’re annoyed. What can you say? Facetiousness will get you everywhere. “Sidle up to the culprit and say something like, ‘Did you see that story on the news about how a bunch of people in Maryland became ill from that strange virus? Doctors think they may have contracted it by double-dipping Triscuits in crab dip at a party,'” say the Etiquette Grrls.

You’re in the bathroom at work, and you overhear two people talking about you — and not very kindly. You’re upset. Do you make them aware of your presence? Yes, advise the Etiquette Grrls. “People who are stupid enough to gossip about co-workers in the bathroom without checking to see if the subject is there deserve to be mortally embarrassed.” Here are two ways to handle the situation: a) You’re in a stall, and the gossipers are at the sinks. After you’ve determined that they’re talking about you and not the other Elspeth, the one in Human Resources, fling open the door and say something witty like, “And here she is! Speak of the devil!” The gossipers will no doubt be stunned, which will give you time to wash your hands before you leave the bathroom with the greatest amount of dignity you can muster. b) You’re at the sinks, and the gossipers are in the stalls. As above, make absolutely certain that you’re the subject of their barbs. Then, take a deep breath. Wait for the gossipers to emerge and make it obvious that you’ve been waiting for them. Then, look at them and cheerfully say something perfectly normal like, “Hi! How’s it going?” The gossipers will no doubt slink off in silence.

A Complicated World
You’re having a party, and you’ve invited your recently divorced friend and her ex. The problem is, her ex has told you that he wants to bring his new girlfriend. What do you say to the ex — and to your friend? Consider the circumstances. Was it a messy divorce? Are you having a small party where no one can get lost in the crowd? “Hopefully it’s neither, or you run the risk of having artichoke dip slung across the room,” say the Etiquette Grrls. “Even if the divorce was amicable, you ought to give both parties a heads-up. You might say to your friend, ‘Just so you know, Penelope, I invited Holden to the party as well. I bumped into him yesterday, and he mentioned that he’d like to bring his new girlfriend. Maybe we should make sure you have a fabulous date for the party…what do you think?'” In the future, advise the Etiquette Grrls, don’t invite a divorced couple to a party unless they’re great pals.

A friend has recently separated, and you know someone to whom you think she’d be attracted. How do you tell her? Regardless of the circumstances of the breakup, setting up your friend by saying something like, “Hey, I know this swell neurosurgeon who’s dying to go on a date!” has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, say the Etiquette Grrls. “When it’s so soon after a breakup, it’s better not to tell her anything. Instead, arrange for your friend and the potential suitor to join you and your friends for a night or host a dinner party and see what happens.”

An acquaintance has recently had a miscarriage. What’s the right thing to say? It depends on how you found out about it. If the woman didn’t tell you directly, then don’t say anything, says Mary Mitchell. If she did let you know, simply say, “I’m so sorry.” Never suggest that some things work out for the best, or that you know she’ll get pregnant again soon, or that maybe the timing wasn’t right, advises Mitchell. Not everyone would be consoled by such words.

Friends know you’ve been trying a long time for your second child. How do you fend off specific queries? “You don’t want to be rude, so try to be lighthearted,” says Jean A. Neuhart, an etiquette expert for “If someone asks about how hard you’re trying, you could say, ‘We’re really enjoying all the practice’ or ‘It’s giving us the chance to try all these new positions.’ Alternatively, you could just change the subject.”

You’ve been out of touch with a former colleague/friend for eight years, and you feel awkward about contacting her. How can you reconnect? The best way to get back in touch with a friend you’ve gone AWOL on is to call her, say the Etiquette Grrls. “There’s no need to go into a long explanation of your absence if you don’t want to. It should be enough to say, ‘Gosh, I’ve been thinking of you a lot lately, Alice, and I thought I’d try to track you down and see what you’ve been up to.'”

Your friend’s niece was recently married. Although you were unable to attend the wedding, you would like to send a gift. You don’t know whether she has taken her husband’s name, and neither does your friend. How do you address the package? Ask your friend to call the bride’s mother to find out, advise the Etiquette Grrls. Otherwise, go with “John and Mary Newlywed,” which is always correct socially.

You’ve heard that your boss just had a face-lift. Can you compliment her on it? “No,” say the Etiquette Grrls. “You must be as silent as the grave, even if she wears sunglasses and oddly wrapped scarves for two weeks. Many people have facial surgery for non-cosmetic reasons.”

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