October 6, 2011 § 2 Comments
The State of American Manners
One evening last week we stopped in at Target to pick up laundry detergent and a birthday card. We were hardly in the door before a gaggle of teenage girls eclipsed us, shrieking with laughter. I’d stopped to browse in a bin of inexpensive toys and they snatched and grabbed at things right in front of me, as if I were not even there. They jammed “roast turkey” hats onto their heads and screamed with the hilarity of it all.
“It’s animal day tomorrow, we have to get these!” one shrieked. A blonde girl knocked into me reaching for something in a bin. She seemed not to notice.
“That would be freaking awesome,” another roared, doubling over with laughter. They gobbled and cackled in their roast turkey hats, screaming with delight at how ridiculous they were, overcome with how amazing they would be at school tomorrow. The noise rolled over me in waves.
Then, like a whirlwind, they moved off towards the clearance racks in the women’s department, tossing and shrieking and laughing all the way.
I like kids. I even like teenaged kids. It hasn’t been so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in the midst of laughing, silly, hysterical group of girls. No doubt I’ve irritated plenty of adults in my day. (Though the presence of someone my mother’s age would have inhibited me a bit.) But these kids, these nice upper middle-class, well-fed, privileged girls were behaving like, well, savages.
No sooner had their whoops and wails faded from earshot, they were replaced by something even worse. The detergent aisle of this store is directly across from Girls Clothing. There, in a shopping cart, a little girl about five was screaming. Sobbing. Her mother, trying to pretend that nothing was amiss, went on browsing like she was totally unaware of her daughter’s meltdown, examining the details on a sweater collar or holding up a pair of leggings for size.
It was everything I could do not to march over there and ask her what the hell she thought she was doing, and what on earth gave her the idea that it was okay to “teach her daughter a lesson” at the expense of everyone in the store.
I held on to the shelf of Tide, knuckles white. The little girl continued to wail, hiccupping, sobbing some more. That spot, just above my left eye, began to throb. Finally, the girl’s father came and wheeled the cart away, the child silent in their departure. I suppose she’ll grow up to think it’s okay to knock into other shoppers and shriek in public and throw merchandise around in stores.
My husband and I talked about the two sets of rude people as we drove home. It seems we’re spending more time talking about rude people, lack of decorum, the inconsiderate among us. This is what happens all day long in public America—we’re running amok.
Drivers no longer merge onto highways, they barge. I’d point out that “yield” seems to mean nothing to people, but really stop signs don’t carry much importance either. Communities have had to install cameras at busy intersections because so many people blast through long after the light’s turned red. (Apparently Dayton has $450,000 owed them in unpaid red-light tickets.) People speed up so that you can’t enter the roadway in front of them.
They either park so sloppily over the painted lines that they take up two spaces or they intentionally take up two spaces so their precious vehicle doesn’t get dinged by some ten year old flinging open the door of the mini-van. They tailgate. On the interstate, they pull in front of you from the adjacent lane with inches to spare, just enough space provided you don’t speed up one more mile an hour. (Which of course they would do if you were trying to get in front of them.) They blow their horn if you don’t jackrabbit into the intersection the minute the light turns green, and God forbid you actually STOP before making a right on red. They pass on double yellow lines. They pass on city streets. Taking to the public thoroughfare is more and more like something out of Death Race 2000.
The police promise and threaten to be more active in going after aggressive drivers. If they are, it’s not having much effect. A City of Kettering police officer once stopped my husband for driving too slowly. We were meandering home in our Saab on a Friday evening, doing about 25 mph on a quiet city street. No doubt he thought “sporty car going slow equals drinking.” He was wrong. He said to my husband “Well, at least try to go the speed limit.” Excuse me?
When another driver actually allows me to merge into the lane in front of them, I am always surprised, and respond with a wave, “Hey, thanks!”
In Wim Wenders’ film, Wings of Desire, Peter Handke wrote that our cars are our kingdoms and in them we are kings of our own tiny empires. Tonight, a man in a minivan (arguably the worst category of drivers) pulled out from a gas station, crossing the road directly in front of us. He pushed past another car waiting for the traffic to clear and turned left across four lanes of traffic, in a cacophony of screeching brakes and blaring horns. He was on his cell phone and seemed not to notice. We may have constructed a cocoon, a paradise of “I,” but we are not islands unto ourselves. Everything we do in public affects someone else.
Not that the sanctuary of home life exists anymore. My husband is a fan of political commentary and talking heads inundate our living room with a constant stream of lies, scandal and notoriety. I suggested once that we go on a diet from this kind of television, if perhaps that would help us feel less at odds with our fellow Americans, less despairing of their behavior. There’s just no way that you can listen to a steady infusion of this stuff and not feel pissed-off. Just a week, I suggested, but we haven’t tried it yet.
Certainly there’s no haven from rudeness in cyberspace. It would be hard to imagine a playground where people are less courteous. The comments made on newspaper sites, forums for various hobbies and the ubiquitous Facebook go right past rude and often into the muck of verbal abuse. And I’m guilty of the same. Without the nuance of gesture or inflection, we are quick to take offence. Freed from inhibition by distance and a shell of anonymity, we post things that we would never in a million years say to someone’s face.
Sometimes this even happens between real life friends. A comment is made, a retort follows. Maybe the response was meant wryly or with a kind of nudge—but the recipient only sees the naked type on the screen, devoid of charm or affection, and the offense is laid bare. Friendships, some long-standing, end over these exchanges.
Staying connected via the cell phone has become a kind of hallmark of rudeness. Not just those texting or talking while they pull into oncoming traffic, what about the people who won’t get off the phone in the drive-thru of the fast food place, or the check-out line at the grocery store? Of course the reverse is true also. How aggravating is it to deal with a cashier who won’t look at you or speak to you or is too busy chatting with a colleague or flirting with the bagger to exert the minimum amount of grace required for his or her job?
One afternoon at Kroger, even though I was in a hurry to be somewhere else, I stomped off to find the manager to complain about just such a cashier.
“Oh, that surprises me about her. She worked at Elder-Beerman’s for forty years, ” he said, not bothering with an actual apology. I guess after 40 years in a pretentious department store, there’s no need to acknowledge the lowly grocery store customer.
Of course, there are still the garden variety bad manners: a cousin and his wife who have yet to thank us (by note, by email, in person or on Facebook) for the wedding gift we gave them. (A really nice stockpot, but maybe they were offended that we didn’t use their registry?) Of course, they haven’t thanked us for baby gifts either. Or the kennel club meeting to which I brought a lemon-raspberry cheesecake and one person, one person said thank you. It’s not that we do these things to be thanked, we make these gestures out of affection and goodwill, but you know it would have been nice to have the effort acknowledged.
I don’t want to give the impression that I think I’ve been perfect in this regard. I haven’t. Sometimes I have failed terribly at etiquette. I know the thank you notes for our wedding gifts went out far too late. I know I have been sharp when I didn’t need to be. Once I beeped my horn at a pick up truck about to back into our car in a parking lot and the driver jumped out, rushed back and spewed invective all over me. Not knowing then what I know now, I gave back as good as I got. He went back to his truck briefly and returned with a large handgun. Thankfully, passersby intervened before our lack of manners took a tragic turn.
Though I’ve never drawn a gun on anyone, I too have indulged in a few spectacularly public temper fits. Years ago, a man took the last table at an outdoor café, racing in front of us (laden with a tray of food) and sitting down to read his newspaper. We argued about his right to the table when he had not yet purchased food. When he turned his back to me and sat down, I slapped him hard across back of his balding head.
On an evening more than a decade ago, a woman in grocery store line behind me started piling up my groceries on the belt, so she could take her groceries out of the cart sooner. She said something about not wanting her bread to get crushed. It didn’t amount to more than some angry words and still today, there’s a part of me that wishes I’d come even more unglued—that I’d thrown her bread on the floor and stood on it. If you’re going to have Bad Manners make it a real production number rather than just this day to day loss of civility that’s gnawing away at reasonable discourse.
But I didn’t. And these days I think I could handle it a bit more deftly. (A lesson learned from the gun-wielding nutcase in the parking lot.) That’s a large part of what makes manners—stifling one’s emotional impulses for the greater good.
The other part is making the effort to acknowledge the others whose lives intertwine with ours, no matter how slight the connection. A wave to an acquaintance still serves to show that we are open-handed and unarmed. A smile begets a nod, even among strangers. Holding the door for other people is still generally appreciated, though there will occasionally be louts that sail through without a word as if you are a uniformed doorman.
Among my books are half a dozen navy blue volumes, each of them a different edition of the Emily Post Book of Etiquette, ranging from the 1920s through the 1950s. I have found them in thrift shops and book sales, each one cast off as something no longer necessary. It’s amusing to read about silverware arrangements or what sort of hat is appropriate to wear to tea, or the proper wording to decline an invitation to lunch.
People think these kinds of manners are archaic, and some of them are. Gentleman are no longer required to walk on the outside of the street to protect their feminine companions from harm. (Though it might not be a bad idea.) You will not be the scandalous talk of the town if you fail to use the correct fish service.
The essential elements of manners are still consideration and kindness, and they are still essential. Yet we are uncertain about them at time, reflected in the popularity of Judith Martin’s charming “Miss Manners” character (who has surely penned as many books as Miss Post by now) and the syndicated newspaper columns dealing with ethics. It’s as if we don’t remember quite how to behave—or we know how to behave but we want someone to share our outrage at the boors with whom we have to contend.
Living among others is a kind of dance. Sometimes it seems a series of missteps, other times we find ourselves gliding along gracefully with a minimum of effort. You lead.
Show a little consideration. Say please when you ask your teenager to take out the trash. Turn off your cell phone and stow it while driving. Let another driver go in front of you. Count to ten. Slow down. Don’t tailgate. Stop and smell the roses. Turn off the television. Write the thank you note, or at the very least, the thank you email. Don’t say something online that you wouldn’t say in person. Take your exhausted child home. Remember that you may be having an uproarious great time but the person next to you may be infirm or in pain. Don’t interrupt your wife on the telephone to ask her something trifling. Give a little extra. Stop listening to angry people, especially those that are overpaid. Smile at strangers. As our mothers instructed us when we were little more than babies, play nice.
I’m going to work at it too.