Manners? What are they?

Bad behavior is the way to fame and fortune these days

November 26, 2006|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,Sun Reporter

The pop sensation of the moment is a fake Kazakh journalist who uses racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and, failing that, potty humor to illuminate our social shortcomings.

The current tabloid fixation is Britney Spears' divorce from Kevin Federline, the crotch-grabbing wannabe rapper who had repulsed most casual observers before his own wife belatedly reached the same conclusion. But that the self-styled "K Fed" apparently learned by text message that he was about to become "Fed Ex" seemed a new low, even for a trashy and surreal union.

Meanwhile, the award for worst loser in an awards show gained two fresh nominees in less than a week. Faith Hill looked visibly horrified at losing a Country Music Association award, but said afterward it was all a joke. Kanye West was named best hip-hop artist at the MTV Europe Music Awards, but crashed the stage in Copenhagen because he thought it a ripoff that he didn't get "best video," too. He later trotted out the overworn too-much-to-drink excuse.

Decorum is clearly on the run.

Celebrities behave badly and mostly heighten their appeal, their mansions growing in direct proportion to their misconduct. Moments captured on film that once might have ruined a career now make one. Little girls see promiscuous clothes on the latest dolls and then, as adults, struggle with appropriate workplace attire. And the stupider the movie, the more profitable: Borat's Cultural Learnings might be biting commentary, but Jackass No. 2, racking up nearly $75 million at the box office, is not.

(Tastelessness isn't boundless, we learned thankfully last week: The line seems to be somewhere above O.J. Simpson "confessing" to the murders for profit.)

The Internet continues as the biggest force of all in shifting social custom. On networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, people share information of the most personal nature around the world.

On the video site/cultural phenomenon known as YouTube, Sean "Diddy" Combs narrated a clip not long ago describing his own bathroom break.

"It's almost as good as sex. ... Whooooo ... . I told you you're seeing Diddy like you've never seen him before," said the performer. And, he concluded, "always wash your hands." Some of the 100,000 who downloaded the clip dubbed it "Pee Diddy."

Things get exchanged by e-mail that would never be said aloud. And people much less invulnerable than Diddy get baffled when consequences arise.

"People feel a kind of heady freedom without considering the consequences. They can't imagine that the delete button doesn't delete everything," said Judith Martin, the long-time syndicated etiquette columnist known as Miss Manners. "You did not have mature, well-behaved movie stars in the old days either. You just had movie studios able to hush things up. And that's not just in Hollywood, that's in Washington, too."

As cell phones, computers and BlackBerrys blur the bounds between home and work, the line between work and home behaviors has also become murkier - in much more casual dress and communication. A popular TV commercial shows a worker making Jim Carrey-esque funny faces to mock his boss, only to realize the boss' voice isn't coming from far away on a conference call, but from the other end of the room.

"Generation Y grew up calling their parents' friends by their first names, which was shocking to baby boomers. And that continues with work," said Amy Glass, a business consultant outside Philadelphia who specializes in managing across generational divides. " ... There's a real direct link between things going on in corporate America and what we see on TV."

Social mores don't only move downward. Racist and anti-Semitic expression is much less excused, as Mel Gibson, George Allen and Michael Richards might now understand. Workplace sexual harassment is less likely to get a wink and a nod. Social class and rank are much less regarded as the measure of someone's worth, as they strictly were when a young George Washington transcribed 110 "Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation," including No. 26: "In Pulling off your Hat to Persons of Distinction, as Noblemen, Justices, Churchmen &c make a Reverence, bowing more or less according to the Custom of the Better Bred, and Quality of the Person."

Most people are happily long removed from such formalities. But there should still be a difference between pretentious manners and bad ones.

"There's no bad publicity," Judith Martin said of today's celebrities. "The only shame is in being unwatched."

Last summer, more than 2 million people downloaded a home movie of Britney Spears burping, ranting and drinking beer in what became the most-watched clip on one day.

A decade after politicians extolled the "V-chip" to protect children from television's excesses, sex and violence on TV today is much more graphic and airs well before 10 p.m. - and it's still mild compared with various video and Web games.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.