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Do Manners Matter?

Recently, a college professor of mine, on whom I’ve had an intellectual crush for over a decade, posted a blog about young people and their lack of manners. It wasn’t the usual lament about “kids today;” rather it examined the role that adults have in instilling those manners. It got me thinking about etiquette in general and its place in modern life. Join me, won’t you, on another journey of the mind? (This is what you get when most of our staff is out sick, mwa ha haaa!)

My parents raised me with what I would consider to be above-normal manners. From the moment I was able to answer the phone, I had a spiel I had to use: “Good morning/afternoon/evening, McDoogal residence, Hattie speaking.” I can only imagine how unspeakably adorable this sounded in my mousy little squeak of a voice. My parents insisted I call all adult family members with their proper title (ie, not “Nancy” but “Cousin Nancy.” After every holiday or birthday, I was parked at the kitchen table with a stack of stationery, and each thank you letter was examined before it was sealed. I should mention that my parents were on the older side, and were raised in the 1940s and “˜50s and went to Catholic school.

As I got older, my parents relaxed a little, as did society. I have two theories on why this happened: the internet, and a general waning in how people feel about class in modern society.

So, obviously, the internet was the great equalizer. Writing a letter used to be a bit of an event; I remember doing it as a kid. Your handwriting had to be good. If you used a pencil, you had to be careful when you erased so you didn’t rip the paper. In pen, God help you if you made a mistake. In the business world, letter-writing required typing skills, and people (mostly women) made a career out of managing someone else’s correspondence. It created a wall between the average employee and The Boss. No one could just call The Boss. No one could call his direct line. So, when you did get to address someone above you, it was a formal affair. You were probably nervous. You wanted to be sure you said and did the right things.

Then along came email, as well as cell phones, and now CEOs are just as easily reachable as everyone else. You can figure out The Boss’s email address if you know their name, and any other email address at their company. You can call their direct line, or their blackberry. The wall is gone. You probably call your boss by their first name, and they don’t care.

The other, less obvious shift has taken place in how people think about one’s social status. While I don’t believe we’ve ever been as strict as Britain, this country has long had classes. Manners and etiquette were a way to distinguish yourself from the lower classes. This is the proper way to set a table, the proper way to act at a social function, the proper way to address others. It was stifling, but it was safe. It was a way to make sure that everyone around you knew you were a respectable person.

So, what about now? I think there is still a division between social classes, and the wealthiest in our nation are continuing to get richer and to benefit off the poorer people, but I think a lot of the boundaries have been blurred. The advance of technology has allowed “dropouts” like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to become some of the richest people in our country, if not the world. People can become famous and adored for doing degrading or inappropriate things on TV.  I think now we care more that someone is interesting or smart than if they are “classy.”

Things that were normal for previous generations are actually awkward and maybe even inappropriate now. I read up on wedding etiquette before getting married, and found that the rules were not only hard to understand, but following them would have made me seem like a snooty, uptight bitch. That’s because I think our society is moving into a realm where flaunting your wealth or social status is seen as gauche.

So, do manners matter? Yes. Manners, on their most basic “Please and thank you” level, are extremely important. But I think that can just be chalked up to being nice to people. If someone does something nice, you say thank you. If you’re meeting someone new, you put on your best face because you don’t want to scare them off with how weird or crazy you are. But I think as we continue to move forward in a world where your every mistake and indiscretion is on the internet for all to see, and where your intelligence and work ethic can get you farther than your inheritance, the longer list of etiquette rules become increasingly obsolete. Check back with me in a few decades, and maybe I’ll be singing a different tune. But we’ll see.

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