Where Have All The Manners Gone?

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The Article

Every generation reaches a point where it starts grousing about “these kids today” and how much better things were in the good old days. Having reached my ripe old 30s, I guess it’s my turn. Although I hardly grew up in an age of innocence, the world I left behind strikes me as relatively genteel in comparison. But it isn’t just the kids today that disturb me;  it’s also their parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The general coarsening of society seems to be creeping upon us, and it often feels as if there is little one can do to stop the tide. 

Modern car culture has brought along with it a host of unpleasant behavior that didn’t always come with the territory. Everyone enjoys turning up the car stereo and singing along to their favorite tunes, but the ear-drum-shattering volumes emanating from today’s vehicles are beyond the pale. It doesn’t matter if it’s 7 am on Sunday or 11 pm on Tuesday;  stereo speakers must be pounding at all times of day and night— especially if the driver plans on remaining in one place for extended periods of time. The only saving grace is that a whole generation will soon go deaf. 

The Car Alarm Sadists 

Then there are those maddening car alarms that feature every grating sound possible, in endless repetition. Where’s a surface-to-surface missile when you need one? People do their best to ignore them, the police never come and owners rarely respond. So, since car alarms are obviously obsolete, they must be designed simply to torment human beings. This makes car manufacturers who insist on installing them and customers who seek them out either sadistic or oblivious. 

How about the inconsiderate types who pull up in front of a house and instead of getting out and knocking on the door, honk the horn incessantly until someone comes outside? A special place in hell should be reserved for these people. 

Noise pollution is really just a form of thoughtlessness, which seems to be in steady supply these days. Those annoying mechanized scooters that all too often attract teenage owners who like to drive back and forth all day are my personal favorite. Mini-motorcycles are louder than their larger counterparts, most of which consist of vehicles designed for maximum sound output. There was a time that Harley-Davidson motorcycles were reserved for the Hells Angels and other motorcycle aficionados. But now everyone and their mother seems to own a Harley, and none of them have mufflers. 

Last but not least are everyone’s favorite gardening tools. Leaf blowers, those ridiculously loud implements that blow leaves from one place to another in the same time it takes to use a simple rake, are the bane of many a neighborhood today. One can only hope the leaf-blower bans in place in a few select neighborhoods will one day make their way down to the territories of the lower tax brackets. 

Rudeness On Public Transit 

Public transportation provides ample opportunities for rudeness, too.  My pet peeve is personal grooming. If a woman who is late for work has to do a bit of makeup on the bus, I can live with that. Though she might have gotten up a tad earlier and done it at home, I will not fault her for dabbing on a bit of lipstick on the bus. But clipping or filing nails crosses the line. Not only are the offenders leaving traces of their DNA for the Men in Black to find, they’re being slobs in the process. I once saw someone take his shoes and socks off on BART and proceed to give himself a foot massage. Needless to say, the car emptied out rather quickly. 

Another charming habit that seems to be back in fashion, if indeed it ever went out, is spitting. Barring the sudden urge due to sickness, the habit is an extremely nasty one that crosses all lines of hygiene. I once watched in fascinated horror as a young man at a bus stop proceeded to spit repeatedly for 15 minutes before the bus arrived. I didn’t know one human being could contain that much saliva, but he proved me wrong. 

If spitting must be done, one would think that doing so off the curb or somewhere innocuous might help. But instead, offenders seem to aim for the most visible spots possible, causing a city stroll to turn into an amble through an obstacle course of sorts. A few weeks ago, I stumbled on a large gob of spit left strategically in front of the shared mailbox area in the apartment complex where I live. Thanks, neighbor. 

Others don’t even wait until they’re outside to let the spit fly, doing it on the bus itself. I once saw several teenagers on a Muni bus spitting their sunflower seeds onto the floor, where other passengers had to stand and wait to get off. And don’t even get me started on the wads of gum stuck under the seats, on the floor and all over the ground outside instead of being deposited (God forbid) in a garbage can. 

The obnoxious boom box on the bus is always fun, especially when the music in question consists of rap songs in which bitch or ho  figure in every other line. Captive passengers are forced to endure this indignity or risk assault if they dare to complain. Then there are the groups of young men on the bus who like to shoot the breeze as loudly as possible—and, again, profanity is the order of the day. As they brag about sex acts they may or may not have actually taken part in, female passengers get to hear all the juicy details. 

Cell Abuse Is Here To Stay 

I won’t spend too much time complaining about cell phone usage, because it’s clearly here to stay. Although I initially found the phones objectionable, I soon realized that the nature of phone discourse had changed and I had to change with it. Where once it was private, it’s now almost exclusively public. I’m reminded of this by the guy who gabs on his cell phone outside my apartment seemingly 24 hours a day. Let’s just say it doesn’t hurt for cell phone users to demonstrate a modicum of etiquette. 

Besides the obvious stuff—turning off one’s cell phone in movie theaters, concerts, plays and lectures and not shouting at the top of one’s lungs while speaking on the phone—the biggest offense with cell phones is the lack of engagement with the outer world. I find it particularly rude when customers talk on their cell phones during a cash register transaction in a store, all the while ignoring the person assisting them. At least put down your cell phone long enough to briefly acknowledge the person assisting you, say “Thank you” and move on.  Otherwise, the experience can be a dehumanizing one—something I know from having been on the other side of the register myself. 

Speaking of customer service, it’s typical today to encounter non-English speakers at all levels. As a regular shopper at a bargain chain store, I’ve learned that’s it’s best to ask for as little assistance as possible. Beyond blank stares, the language issue is the one that most often comes up. On a recent trip to Mervyns, I made the mistake of asking an employee where the nearest register was, only to be told, “I don’t speak English.” Indeed, it isn’t unusual in such settings to be surrounded by salespeople and customers speaking different languages, while you, the English speaker, are the true foreigner of the bunch. Hopefully, you’re not the butt of the joke everyone’s giggling about. 

Then there are native English speakers who are barely literate. It’s evidently no longer necessary to be able to communicate with customers in Standard English to work in customer service. Monosyllabic mutterings are acceptable forms of communication in many settings. Expecting politeness or perhaps even a smile fr
om sales clerks can often be expecting too much.  It’s not uncommon to have employees with attitude simply glare at you for daring to ask a question. And, when given, the information is usually delivered in an unfriendly fashion. The whole experience has the unmistakable feeling of an episode of Jerry Springer. 

Infrequent Acts of Kindness 

Holding doors open seems largely to be a thing of the past. Though some young women taught to disdain chivalry are uncomfortable when a man holds the door open for them, the rest of us have no such scruples. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s a man being a gentleman or a young person being considerate toward the elderly; it’s the polite thing to do. And remember when people used to give their bus seats to the elderly, pregnant women and women with children? Those days are over. One still sees such acts of kindness on occasion, but far too often selfishness is the order of the day. 

Terms such as “Please” and “Thank you” seem to have departed the lexicon, while saying, “Excuse me,” rather than simply pushing past others with a grunt, is a rarity. Small children, whose parents undoubtedly never taught them the phrase, simply look up at you in wide-eyed confusion upon hearing the mysterious utterance. Those working in customer service are so unaccustomed to being treated with politeness, if acknowledged at all,  that my normal usage of niceties tends to elicit gratefulness far out of proportion to the intention. 

While the above examples of rudeness stand out, there are many exceptions to the rule. As always, the bad apples have a way of tainting the bunch. Still, I’m certainly not the first to comment on the lack of civility out there. I don’t pretend to be a paragon of politeness, but my mother taught me to comport myself in such a way as to show respect for others as well as myself. Therein lies the foundation for good manners. 

Although hardly monumental, the issue of etiquette in the 21st century does have larger implications. It’s the little things that make up a functioning society, and, once they start to go, the rest isn’t far behind. At the heart of littering and other such dirty habits is a lack of regard for public space, while rudeness and thoughtlessness demonstrate a degree of self-absorption that doesn’t bode well. Neither is the stuff of thriving communities. 

But it’s never too late to change the way we conduct ourselves in our daily lives. And if we pass those lessons on to our children, there just may be hope for civilization after all.

Cinnamon Stillwell
Latest posts by Cinnamon Stillwell (see all)

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