I had a meeting downtown this afternoon. Traffic was heavy and pedestrian traffic near my destination was even worse. I finally made it to the office complex I was aiming for and decided to relax a few moments in the lobby before ascending the elevator for a very cut-and-dried appointment with a friendly client.
While I sat in a comfortable chair looking over some notes, a "ding" noise caught my attention and a few people were discharged into the lobby. A man and a women ... he with a briefcase and she laden with papers and an attache and what looked like a tube of blueprints or other rolled documents ... strode purposefully toward the entry doors. He arrived first and barreled through. The door snapped back briskly, actually clipping the female in the shoulder causing her burden to slip from her arms and somewhat scatter on the atrium floor. Another woman who was standing nearby stooped to help the frazzled female collect her things.
A just sat and shook my head, reminded once more that "modern man" was steadily losing ground in the battle to maintain basic civility. Some people call it "etiquette" or "politeness." Others cloak their desires in little reminders like "mind your P's and Q's." My parents called it manners and decency. And, boy, were they right in demanding that we learn to respect people and our social surroundings.
In psychological terms, manners are norms of behavior in a society. They're kind of like social "laws," but instead of going to prison for breaking them you might just be made to feel awkward or unwanted or even ostracized. I know many a person who has started a family feud or lost a friend over poor manners.
As I waited for my meeting, I thought about all the "basics" my parents had impressed on me and my siblings. My Mom had a "Please and Thank You" song we sang when setting the table as a fun reminder to use those phrases appropriately and frequently. We were also trained to wash our hands before every meal, even if it was just a quick snack. Dozens of other "little things" that have served me well came to mind also, like helping a neighbor carry in groceries and covering my mouth when I cough or sneeze and greeting someone with a firm handshake and direct eye-to-eye contact. Or taking off my hat in a public building and saying "bless you" when someone sneezes and complimenting someone on a fresh haircut or new hairstyle. Or my Dad going over a few "guy tricks" like opening a woman's car door or scooting her chair in at the dinner table or giving up a bus seat when a lady is stuck standing. I will always remember my Dad's motto on manners: "they cost nothing but mean everything!"
Now, I don't think I'll ever be running in a rarefied Emily Post crowd, but I am confident I have a basic foundation for being a "couth" member of the human race. For those of you who don't know the name, Emily Post was a women born into a world of wealth and privilege in the late 1800s. She set standards in manners through her writings (magazines, travel logs, novels, etc.) and deeds (in 1905, she stunned socialites by divorcing her banker husband on the grounds of infidelities that she would not abide). In 1922, Post wrote Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, the seminal publication on manners for more than 85 years now. The author also wrote an etiquette column that appeared in hundreds of newspapers and even founded the Emily Post Foundation which to this day provides etiquette training and support for organizations across the globe.
But even with my basics in place, I honestly believe that refreshers on manners and etiquette never hurt anyone. Sometimes I use the Internet or the library to read a recent Judith Martin column ... the "Ms. Manners" of the Washington Post. "Hints from Heloise" ... a.k.a. advice and etiquette guru Ponce Cruise ... reminds me again and again of simple courtesies. Me, and her readers in over 500 domestic and international newspapers.
Even the spirit of Emily Post affects me almost daily. Her great-grandson, Peter Post, offers weekly tips in his "Etiquette at Work" column featured in the Boston Globe each Sunday. The male Post won my heart on several occasions with his scathing remarks about the "proper place" for cell phones and other electronic media in our professional and personal lives (a common "rant" topic of mine). In his honor, I gave copies of his Essential Manners for Men to two of my nephews as stocking stuffers last year.
POINT OF RANT: Next time I'm dining with my family and everyone just dives into a meal without washing their hands first or thanking the host for the great food, I'm gonna bust into the "Please and Thank You" song and see what happens.