boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
Today's Globe  |   Latest News:   Local   Nation   World   |  NECN   Education   Obituaries   Special sections  

The grace period has ended

For a while we tried to be nicer to one another. Now we need to learn our manners all over again.

Was it all a dream? Or is it possible, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, that there was a period when America really was a kinder and gentler nation?

Can you recall, after the tragedy, that interim when all of us were more courteous? When talk-show hosts were less demonic and political criticism less bellicose? Wasn't there a respite when we turned down our cellphones, when strangers held the door for one another, when people said, "You get home safe!" and really meant it?

And rush hour was different, wasn't it? At Park Street station, you could board a Green Line train without risking hip-replacement surgery. You could squeeze into the "Cash Only" line to the Ted Williams Tunnel without seeing a forest of obscene gestures, and you could even change lanes on Route 128 without hearing enough horns to make you think you had drifted into a flock of oversexed Canada geese. Alas, with apologies to the Emily Post Institute, and sorry to be crude, dude, but the interlude is postlude. It's over, and if you have any doubts, look up "vulgar behavior" and you're liable to find a picture of:

* Red Sox fans who celebrated a victory by running

amok through the streets, turning over automobiles and setting fires.

* The patron at the Randolph cinema who objected to the pressure of the feet of the gentleman behind him and, therefore, turned around and stabbed him.

* Any of the radio talk-show hosts who appeal to the dumb and dumbest by making fun of people because of race, weight, or political opinion.

* Pitcher Pedro Martinez, who threw a baseball at 90 miles an hour behind Karim Garcia, and later, when Yankee Don Zimmer approached angrily, threw the old man to the ground instead of sidestepping in a gentlemanly fashion.

* The software engineer who, furious about an accident in Weymouth that inconvenienced her, intentionally hit a policeman with her car, later explaining: "I don't care who [expletive] died. I'm more important."

Manner minders

America's recent regression into uncouth behavior has not escaped the notice of those who stand guard to preserve what's left of our sense of propriety, and among them is Peter Post, great-grandson of the grand dame of etiquette, Emily Post, and author of a new book, "Essential Manners for Men."

"The grace period has definitely dissolved," he says, "but it did exist. Any time there's a crisis like 9/11, there's a willingness to forgive things we didn't forgive before. People come together for greater good and think about the other person, which is what etiquette is, thinking about the other person."

Indications that America has a problem with manners was clear in a 2002 study called "Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report on Rudeness in America," which was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and conducted by the New York-based Public Agenda. The national survey of 2,013 adults found that 79 percent believed lack of courtesy was a serious problem in the United States, and 61 percent said rude behavior was on the rise.

None of the findings was flattering.

Forty-four percent said they hear people using crude or rude language in public, although only 36 percent admitted to swearing themselves (45 percent of men and 26 percent of women).

Behavior behind the wheel was worse. Fifty-eight percent said they often saw drivers who were reckless or aggressive, although no more than 35 percent admitted themselves to driving that way. In the workplace, four in 10 said they encounter colleagues who are rude and disrespectful, and 31 percent said their supervisors were uncouth.

Regarding behavior after 9/11, three out of four believed Americans were more courteous, but 66 percent predicted it wouldn't last, and apparently they were right.

"After the tragedy, people were more sensitive," says Rosanne J. Thomas, the founder of Boston's Protocol Advisors, who teaches etiquette. "People were able to put into perspective what was really important and what wasn't. Does it really matter if someone at the supermarket is in the wrong checkout line? For a while, people talked about the importance of being good to each other, but now I don't hear it as much.

"Is good behavior in decline? Well, polls and surveys tell us it is. I don't know if it's any worse than it's ever been, but a lot of people believe it's worse than they can remember."

Rudeness has become prevalent enough in America to justify a website, www.etiquettehell.com, where hundreds of examples of bad behavior are categorized under weddings, baby showers, funerals, etc.

Blame the boomers
Once upon a time in America, however, based on a review of etiquette books a century ago, decorum was admired, and if good manners did not guarantee wisdom, bad manners surely were a sign of vulgarity.

As John H. Young, wrote in "Deportment" in 1882: "No one subject is of more importance to people than a knowledge of the rules, usages and ceremonies of good society. To acquire a thorough knowledge of these matters and to put that knowledge into practice with perfect ease and self-complacency is what people call good breeding. To display an ignorance of them is to subject the offender to the opprobrium of being ill-bred."

So, what happened? When did rudeness become the rage?

Blame your parents, those wild and crazy baby boomers.

"We can almost pinpoint the decline of manners and etiquette to the 1960s," says Thomas. "Prior to that, families ate together at the dinner table. Manners were reinforced all the time -- conversation, listening skills, dining skills, basic considerations, and even electronic manners in that you didn't take telephone calls during the meal. But then people began not to eat together as much, and that's when the basics were no longer taught.

"One problem these days," she says, "is that, unfortunately, there's a lapse in etiquette when people make too great a deal over things that are inadvertent, offenses that they perceive as being intentional but really are inadvertent oversights. In etiquette, we want to overlook as much as we can. Not everything, of course, but we try to give other people the benefit of the doubt."

In the Presidential Room at the Boston College Club the other day, Thomas conducted a private two-day tutorial for Chris Slankard, 31, a rising executive at Caterpillar Co. in Peoria, Ill. Having reviewed the art of the introduction and the handshake, the two women moved on to small talk at cocktail receptions -- what can be discussed and what cannot.

"If sex, politics, religion, and gossip are off-limits," she asks rhetorically, "then what's left? Well, there's travel, weather, sports, music, theater, art, books, movies, the Big Dig, the view from here of the Charles River -- all those things you can chat about, and then you hope the other person will hold up his or her end of the conversation."

Then she asks Slankard: "Does a woman stand during an introduction?"

Slankard is unsure.

"Well, we know that, socially, women have the prerogative of remaining seated, but as women in the business arena, we stand, because we are not as concerned about age and gender issues as we are about power and position."

Never too late
At a time when boys and girls enter school through metal detectors to ensure they're not armed with guns and knives, when teenage girls wear T-shirts describing sex acts in language common at Marine Corps boot camp, is Thomas whistling past the graveyard of dead manners in teaching the subtleties of the sorbet course, the importance of the notch that differentiates the fish fork, and the nuances of whether the finger bowl is moved left or right and with or without the doily?

"No," she says firmly. "In learning etiquette, it's never too late, never too soon.

"Children's first etiquette classes should be in the home, and children should be reminded, in a nice way, all the time. Parents need to model good behavior, reinforce good behavior, and then reward good behavior. I sense that young children want to know and want to do the right thing, and it gives them confidence."

She cannot let go of her observation without humor.

"Don't forget what Oscar Wilde said: `The world was my oyster, but I used the wrong fork.' "

Jack Thomas can be reached at thomas@globe.com.

test your manners
Courtesy call
Many Americans may not realize how unmannerly they are. Surveys show that 49 percent of Americans say they often see people using cellphones in a loud or annoying manner in public, yet only 17 percent of cellphone users admit to participating in such behavior. Here are five social problems to test your sense of etiquette.
related information
Then and now: the increasingly relaxed rules of social interaction
How times have changed. To get a sense of how the rules of etiquette have evolved, we compared the advice given in some recent books to that classic guide from 1882, ''Our Deportment'' by John H. Young.
SEARCH GLOBE ARCHIVES
 
Globe Archives Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months