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We might retain outdated behaviour (the gentleman walks toward the street side of the lady, to protect her from splatters thrown up by passing horses), or struggle with new: should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