A Little Consideration, Please

In our globalized age, minding one's manners goes way beyond writing thank-you notes. Remembering the rules of civility can even make the difference between war and peace.

September 25, 2005|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Everyone hates rudeness. Even small, feral children are stunned when people are rude back to them. Yet despite this universal disdain for incivility, almost no one wants to hear (much less read) that the manners apply as much to them as to that rude person over there.

Manners, it would appear, are for other people.

Call it the Civility Disconnect: In the 21st century, the lack of manners has rendered us acculturated to incivility. However, in an era of globalization, shifting political landscapes and terrorism, incivility can be more than just annoying; it can be downright dangerous. Breaches in etiquette and manners can cost lives, whether through a simple road-rage incident or an international social gaffe that leads to political unrest.

Many think of etiquette -- the art of behavior and manners -- as simply when and how to use a fish fork or whether to use blue or black ink on cream vellum to write a thank-you note (yes, thank-you notes are still de rigueur, as Miss Manners explains; she might forgive the color ink and type of paper but not failure to write the note).

For those ageless tidbits of etiquette, there are guides aplenty, like the sweet Little Book of Etiquette: A Personal and Professional Guide to Dining by Dorothea Johnson, from Running Press Books' Irresistible Miniature Edition Series. Such simple primers for manners tend to focus on the ins and outs of daily social interaction for people who were either never taught or just weren't listening when Mother said, "Don't do that in public, dear, it's not nice."

Increasingly, however, the world of manners has expanded far beyond the realm of dinner table politesse to include a retinue of situations that are exponentially more important than the erstwhile fish fork. Personal social interaction must now include rules for dealing with the range of relationships in modern society, such as blended families or gay neighbors or the newly single. Work or study in the global village now demands a knowledge of cultures manifestly different from one's own and the etiquette that pertains.

British manners maven Lynne Truss has no patience for what she perceives as the decline of civility in the 21st century. Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door (Penguin) is replete with Truss' acerbic wit and is declarative about why we are becoming more rude. Cell phones, the Internet, home videos, big cars, huge music systems, commonplace obscenities -- all have turned people into self-absorbed monsters with little to no consideration for others. People throw their trash on the sidewalk, put their feet up on another's seat in the movies, talk endlessly on cell phones (despite, frequently, having a companion languishing beside them) in every public place imaginable using language that is unprintable. It's undeniably annoying and appallingly rude. Truss would, rightly, like us to stop and think about others as we embark on such behaviors. And then just stop.

Judith Martin has long been the most enjoyable purveyor of etiquette -- and the most popular. As Miss Manners, she has delighted readers with her ironic, take-no-prisoners approach to etiquette. In Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated (Norton), she takes us beyond the scope of manners of previous eras (not forgetting them, of course, just adding to the retinue of do's and don'ts), into the necessary manners for today.

At the core of it all, she explains, lies civility; manners are for everyone. Martin's approach is very much do-unto-others. Don't, for example, say yes when you really mean no -- whether it's agreeing to come to dinner, planning a fundraiser or having an affair with a co-worker. Politeness, Miss Manners asserts, often means being forthright. It always means not putting others in untenable situations by being vague. Commitment is the core of good manners. Even in cultures where it is considered bad manners to say no, polite people find other ways of expressing themselves clearly.

Letitia Baldrige would agree. After years in the diplomatic service, Baldrige embarked on a career as the premier author of workplace etiquette. Letitia Baldrige's New Manners for New Times: A Complete Guide to Etiquette (Simon & Schuster) is less amusing and less strident than Miss Manners but no less firm. Manners are an expression of love and care, and they are under our control. Baldrige is succinct: Good manners make us feel good about ourselves. "When you're nice to someone else ... that someone else is nice back to you, and suddenly two people feel good about themselves and each other, and spread their feelings."

Therein lies the essential nature of good manners: Consideration for others is reciprocated and replicated, and waves of good will flow into society, making us all better, nicer, more giving people.

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