Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Etiquette and civility

A colleague recently asked me if I would be interested in developing "a course to teach people manners", by which she meant young professionals, about 25-30 years old. I asked her what she meant by "manners".

For m
e, the territory separates into two categories:

1. Etiquette: The codified behaviours which signal acceptable social behaviour (which vary by class, geography or culture, and era), such as table manners or the use of conventional grammar, and

2. Civility: Behaviour that shows consideration for the safety and comfort of one's fellows, such as moving one's bags off an unoccupied bus seat or not using a cell phone at a closely-packed restaurant table.


Etiquette, the province o
f parents, image consultants and authors, usually offers no rationale except "that's the way it's done", and the rules shift according to era, culture, and class.

We might retain outdated behaviour (the gentleman walks toward the street side of the lady, to protect her from splatters thrown up by passing horses), or struggle with new: should you end a relationship by text message?

Some of my etiquette is deeply ingrained. I flinch when a man leaves his hat (usually a baseball cap) on in a restaurant. But (as my sons point out) what does this have to do with my meal? I'm reacting to rules my parents invoked. Suppose I never heard that rule? If Emily Post fell in a forest, would anyone hear her?

Civility interests me keenly, for it's a barometer of quality of life. Civility is a result of a person's willingness to make life safer, smoother, easier, more pleasant for others, as well as hoping for reciprocity
. I'm not sure civility be taught, at least not to unwilling adults.

This week I observed littering, driving that endangered others, and found a
bandoned shopping carts on neighbourhood streets. If the perps are caught by a law enforcement officer who has the time and inclination, they might be fined, but likely not edified by a lecture on the responsibilities of citizenship.

We have far deeper rends in the social fabric in this large city, shootings and assaults, some within schools. The premise Malcolm Galdwell presented in "The Tipping Point" is that the first tiny rends- the litter, graffitti, broken windows- open the door for the mugging or assault.

Is there a cumulative effect? If no one says to the litterer, "Hey! Pick that up!", do people think, I can do anything?


I was recently in line at a bakery, where a plate of gingerbread snowflakes was displayed. I decided to buy one, and idly sorted through several. A soft, gracious voice whispered in my ear, "Best to take the ones you touch." Of course, this is a lesson I taught my sons, but forgot in the moment. I appreciated this woman's reminder, but it's so easy to get defensive, isn't it?


Please make your call outside. Excuse me, did you see that No Parking sign? This person is blind, would you please give her your seat?

10 comments:

Deja Pseu said...

Oh, I did that rummage-through-the-cookies thing a few years ago when offered one from a plate. (I wanted a smaller one.) The person reminding me was not so gentle, but I knew immediately she was right, apologized for my rudeness and thanked her for the reminder. I don't think she knew how to take my response.

I think we've lost a sense of we're-all-in-this-together, of community, which IMO is the cornerstone of civility. Nobody thinks that the old man struggling with his bags of groceries might be us someday.

Duchesse said...

Pseu- Some think the present recession will restore a sense of community- I hope so. At the same, you can't put back in what wasn't there to begin with. I'm taking my sons to the stage performance of "It's a Wonderful Life" next week.

greying pixie said...

Well, unfortunately I think it is more complex than just two categories. But if we keep your two categories, why should table manners go in etiquette when to eat graciously is in a way a form of civil behaviour? It shows consideration for your fellow diners. Knowing which fork to use I see as snobbish etiquette, eating with your mouth closed and keeping your elbows in surely is civility.

My parents brought me up to believe that good manners and civil behaviour cost nothing and will take you everywhere.

I suppose perfect manners come when you no longer have to think about them, they are so ingrained they are just part of you.

Duchesse said...

GP: Etiquette (defined by Merriam-Webster as "the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or the offical life") sometimes makes sense and sometimes, especially to the Millenials, seems absurd.

My 21 year old sons, do not see a difference between dining in the presence of a baseball cap or a feather boa- neither disturbs their enjoyment. So it is difficult for me to make a case that a cap in a restaurant "should not be done."

How does using a salad fork instead of a dinner fork when eating a salad show consideration for fellow diners? The more codifed behaviours (usually signifiers of class) seem quaint and pointless to them.

They agree that chewing with ones' mouth open affects their others' enjoyment. I am grateful right now for what I can get.

Rita@Goldivas said...

I used to enjoy the sample trays at Whole Foods, but one day I saw a man rummaging though the bread cubes - yuck! And I HATE going into a store and having to hear someone on their cellphone while they're shopping. It's obviously not a necessary conversation, just chatting in a loud voice that disturbs everyone around them. I've never said anything, but I do send dirty looks, which are generally ignored.

greying pixie said...

Perhaps we were all a bit gung-ho about manners when we were young and have grown more sensitive during the second act. If the young's attitude of insousiance is carried through to all areas, life would not be worth living. I find kind interaction with people to be a very important part of my life now in a way that perhaps I did not have time to consider say 30 years ago.

Regarding cellphones - sometimes my husband phones me from home when I'm sitting on the train to ask what he should start cooking for dinner. I have to speak really quietly to him to give suggestions. The first time this happened he asked me why I was speaking so softly. My reply - 'Because if I speak any louder you'll have the whole train turning up for dinner!'

Anonymous said...

You talk about manners and civility in your posts, yet you come across as extremely pretentious and overbearing. I am sure this is a reflection of the real you. Who are you to be giving out all this advice. You are very plain,homely and unsophisticated. Certainly not someone to be looked up to. Wake up! Your blog gives us all laughs at YOUR expense. Work on being a better person.

Duchesse said...

Anonymous; It's your choice to read or not. Clearly you like to hide between anonymity to make your comments.

Duchesse said...

Anonymous: Oops, that was "hide behind anonymity."

Anonymous said...

Anonymous offered such an excellent negative example to illustrate your post! Anonymous's comment was neither polite nor civil.

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