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Manners Matter

By Timothy J. Cronin, The Catholic Update – 02/17/2005 – 12:00am

Come 2006, students in Louisiana’s schools had better mind their manners! The state senate has unanimously passed good manners legislation.

Popularly dubbed a “yes sir, no sir” bill, it requires students to address all school personnel courteously. The measure has attracted national attention with several other states and local school boards following
Louisiana’s lead. Manners are valued so highly that they are being legislated.

Many high school teachers believe that students already show good manners toward adults in school. Some students wonder why these new laws focus only on courtesy toward adults.

Crisis in Civility

Consider these three scenarios. Could they happen in your parish or school?

• Megan was new to her all-girls Catholic high school and wanted desperately to fit in. Her first month was tough, since most of the girls already knew one another.

By October some popular girls confronted Megan in gym class. “When are you going to admit it? When are you going to ‘come out’? We all know that you’re a lesbian.”

Megan sensed that they intended this as an insult. She felt torn apart inside, not knowing whether to dignify their questions with personal answers or ignore their deliberate unkindness.

•Eight junior boys led a day camp for inner city children as part of their school’s community service program. By the second week, four of the more athletic guys started to become exclusive. The non-athletes were eventually shut out completely by the “cool” guys. This had negative effects on the daily running of the camp.

•Confirmation preparation at a local parish focused on ninth-graders, most who hailed from the public high school. Laura, a student at a more exclusive private school, had recently joined the Church. When the other freshmen discovered what school she attended, they began to tease her and, although it was obvious Laura was uncomfortable, kept it up until she stopped coming.

Sue Fox, author of Etiquette For Dummies, writes that good manners are about “making people feel comfortable.” If courtesy has to do with making people welcome and comfortable, how are we doing?

Politicians, school boards, newspaper writers, parents and plenty of your fellow students don’t think that we’re doing very well. In the wake of Columbine, which began as a lack of manners, mean- spiritedness and incivility in our schools has been called “a national crisis” by President George W. Bush.

This Youth Update suggests that there is a problem and encourages all of us to be more polite and courteous with one another.

In today’s climate this won’t be easy. Polite behavior is viewed by some as weak. Mannerly teenagers are considered different. Courtesy is seen as snobbery.

Not Rude

When Jesus was walking the earth, it was unusual to find people treating everyone civilly. Nonetheless, the gospel teaching inspired and strengthened Christians to adopt atypically kind and polite behavior.

Because consideration was not the norm, even they needed reminders. St. Paul wrote to the Church at Philippi, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Paul would argue that being polite isn’t just for snobs. In fact, snobbery strives to make others uncomfortable, which is far from mannerly.

Struggles within Paul’s churches originated from their great diversity. Converts came from all segments of the Roman world: rich and poor, Jew and Greek, free and slave.

Prejudices and misunderstandings were common, especially at the port of Corinth, a microcosm of the whole Roman Empire. Sound familiar? High schools often include many segments of society. It’s healthy to have lots of variety in a congregation or in a school, but it can lead to unkindness or even suspicion. Differences aren’t always valued and are sometimes even feared.

Are there groups or cliques in your school who don’t respect one another or even try to get along? Early believers had similar struggles. Paul had to remind his friends at Corinth, “Love is not rude” (1 Corinthians 13:5).

Who Decides?

Diversity is a blessing and a challenge. As we become more diverse we need to be aware that manners differ from culture to culture. Ten Ohio high school seniors served as counselors at a summer camp on the
Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Activities included teepee races, where groups of teenagers and children competed to see who could build their teepee first.

Several men of the Lakota tribe were available to assist but none of them did so. This confused the non-Lakota teens until it was explained that Lakota people believe it’s rude to assist unless directly invited.

Certain Bedouin tribes in the Middle East deem it bad form not to burp
vigorously after a special meal. But you probably don’t let out a good belch after turkey and dressing at Grandma’s house! In our culture, this can put your invitation to future Thanksgiving celebrations at risk.

Good manners evolve and change. A few decades ago, a girl would never telephone a boy, let alone ask him out. It was unacceptable for a woman to drive a car. Women took jobs outside the home only out of necessity. It was bad form if a woman’s paycheck was more than her husband’s.

Manners can differ and evolve, but the gospel doesn’t change. The mandate of Jesus is clear: We must treat one another with mercy and love. Could we view courtesy as a sign that we are doing what Jesus would have us do? Not only is this true to our Christian calling, but the world would also be a kinder, gentler place.

Compound Interest

Despite the gospel call to kindness, some teens view manners and rules of etiquette as unreal, restrictive and even dishonest. The girls who told Megan that they thought she was a lesbian considered themselves honest.

But were these teens loving and merciful? Did they consider Megan’s
feelings? And what kind of reputation will these girls have if they go around school bluntly saying exactly what they think? Their rude—not to mention homophobic—behavior will probably cost them a lot of friends.

Our motive for good manners, though, should not be to acquire friends or for any other personal gain. Still the proverb holds true that “there is nothing that costs so little or goes so far as courtesy.”

The student who kindly asks a teacher to explain a low grade on an essay question stands a better chance of a sympathetic hearing than the one who puts the teacher on the defensive.

Saying “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am” may seem old-fashioned to some, but try it the next time you are pulled over by a police officer. The job seeker who writes a thank-you note following a job interview stands out among all applicants.

Adults are usually grateful when encountering courteous teenagers, and will return that courtesy to them. One young man so impressed his elder by politely asking, “Sir, could you please tell me the time?” that the gentleman took off his expensive watch and gave it to him!

Steven Michael Selzer, author of By George! Mr. Washington’s Guide to Civility Today, writes that “Civility is the WD-40 of life—it lubricates everything.” You may not always get a free watch, but you’ll find that good manners pay compound interest.

Rude Role Models

You may be asking, “But shouldn’t adults be courteous to kids, too?” Teenage guys claim that they are more apt to be pulled over by a police officer than other drivers are. Teenage drivers are naturally inexperienced, but does that justify discourtesy toward them from a ticketing officer?

Teenagers complain that they are watched by security in shopping malls more than adults are. Restaurants can be less than enthusiastic in serving young people. Athletes encounter bad behavior from opponents’ coaches and even the parents in the stands.

One successful prep football program became painfully aware that grown-ups in authority sometimes don’t act grown-up. As the visiting team, players heard inappropriate comments from referees such as “You’re not on your home turf now, boy.” Knowing that they were at a disadvantage, the team had to dig deep and tap into their inner strengths.

Football players in the 2000 film Remember the Titans, like those described above, made a commitment to courtesy, even when not being treated courteously—in fact, especially then! They refused to allow immature adults to dictate how they were going to behave. The boys pledged politeness, despite the temptation to trade insult for insult. Whatever the final score, they remained gentlemen, making them the real winners.

You Can Choose

Good manners aren’t automatic. Alex Packer, the author of How Rude! The Teenagers’ Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out, contends manners are taught but parents have failed to teach them. Packer blames the “do your own thing” 1960s and developments like latchkey kids, less parental involvement and the general mistrust of institutions from the Church to the military.

A U.S. News & World Report poll shows that 89 percent of Americans believe we are on the verge of a crisis of incivility. Polls of teenagers reflect similar numbers.

Public Agenda, a national research group, surveyed over 2,000 Americans recently on the topic of rudeness. Half of those interviewed reported that, in the last year, they had walked out of a store because of poor service, encountered reckless and dangerous drivers, and encountered people yelling into cellular phones in inappropriate places.

You will connect with all kinds of people. Why let them decide how you will respond? In an era dominated by media that disdain others for being the weakest link (suggesting that unkind and rude behavior is acceptable and even preferred), refusal to exchange jerky behavior for jerky behavior calls for willpower, commitment and courage.

Inspired by Faith

Jesus did not concern himself with what somebody could do for him. The weakest links (those who deserve uncivil treatment, as suggested by a once-popular TV show) were the first in Jesus’ Kingdom of God. Most of the people Jesus served were not respectable or acceptable in the world of the first century.

The earliest Gospel, Mark, describes Jesus interacting with a motley cast of characters: the man who kept crying out loudly (a.k.a. the Gerasene demoniac), the woman who sought healing by touching Jesus without asking, and the people who loudly criticized the woman who anointed Jesus with oil at Bethany. But perhaps no Gospel story illustrates the Christian call to civility more than that of the Greek woman in Mark 7:24-30.
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