(from Ladies’ Home Journal Magazine)
Recently, I suffered three rude encounters in as many hours. My first was with a bank teller who shrugged and snapped her gum when I asked why she put a hold on my paycheck. Outside, a teenager whizzed by on a skateboard and nearly knocked me flat. And, at lunch, the waitress forgot my order; after I reminded her, she brought me cold soup and slapped it down on the table without a word.
I am no doormat. I am a multi-tasking working mother who speaks her mind. I dressed these people up, down and sideways with the snappy put-downs they deserved. As I tucked into my bowl of cold soup, however, my stomach started churning when the rude waitress balled up another customer’s order and stomped into the kitchen to tear into the cook. She’d been taken down a peg by me, so now she was out to do the same to someone else.
I suddenly thought of my grandmother. She was British and knew how to pour a proper tea, so Grandmother schooled me in the power of good manners early on. When faced with a rude sales clerk, Grandmother was apt to pat the woman’s arm, compliment her sweater, and apologize for bothering her – which inevitably led the sales clerk to scurry off to find whatever item my grandmother required, pronto. If she’d been in my shoes today, Grandmother would have sympathized with the bank teller over silly policies. She would have laughed off the near-miss with the skateboarder. And here, in this diner, Grandmother would have sweetly asked the waitress to reheat her soup, because it was so delicious that she wanted to savor every bite.
But that was then and this is now, I thought sourly, staring at the fat congealing on the surface of my soup. Today we’re more rushed and more anxious, with the economy still on its knees and information rushing at us 24/7 from every corner of the globe. Who has the time or energy to be civil?
Yet, it was also abundantly clear to me on this particular day that rudeness begets more rudeness. I couldn’t help but wonder if the opposite also held true. “You catch more flies with honey,” Grandmother reminded me whenever I asked why she was nice to Mr. Rude So-and-So. More often than not, she was right: Whenever she was nice, whoever had been rude to her would suddenly turn around and go out of his way to be nice in return.
I would try it, I decided: For one week I would remember my manners, especially with people who seemed determined to make me forget them. I would disarm with charm.
When I announced my experiment in manners to my mother, a recent transplant from Massachusetts to South Carolina, she said, “You know what they do down South.”
I didn’t, so she explained. “You can pretty much do or say whatever you want,” Mom instructed. “Even when you’re being rude, you can excuse yourself by adding `Bless your heart.’” Mom gave me these examples: “You have a laugh like a donkey, bless your heart.” Or, “She got those breast implants to keep her husband home at night, bless her heart.”
That seemed too sly for me. Later that day, my hair stylist, Jon, cut my hair. His view was that most people are afraid to use good manners any more. “Even when you say something nice, people think you’re being sarcastic,” he noted. “Rude is the new cool.”
It’s true that we live in a sarcastic age. The Simpsons are our royal family. Jon Stewart’s snide humor helped elect our new president. We laugh when Simon on American Idol tells a hopeful 16- year-old that she sings like a cat dropped off the Empire State Building. Everyone’s a cynic, deliberately sarcastic in the name of being clever, rude in the name of honesty. Perhaps we’re unmannerly for fear of being perceived as sentimental, timid or just plain weak. Does proper etiquette count for anything these days?
Pondering the usefulness of good manners is not a new debate. That night, I consulted the original Queen Bee of Manners, Emily Post. In her ground-breaking 1922 doorstop of a book, Etiquette, she writes, “To some, the very word etiquette is an irritant. It implies a great pother about trifles. Trifles are unimportant, it is true, but then life is made up of trifles.”
Whether we’re out shopping, arranging a wedding, or just eating corn on the cob in public, best society “is not a fellowship of the wealthy,” Post maintains, but an “association of gentle-folk” who practice “good form in speech, charm of manner, knowledge of the social amenities, and instinctive consideration for the feelings of others.”
Wow. I tried to imagine living among an association of gentlefolk. What if everyone yielded at traffic intersections the way they were supposed to? What if every sales clerk greeted you with a smile? What if, when you asked people how they were, you really wanted to hear the answers?
I could think of two possible outcomes: either people would be nicer in response to good manners – or they would eat each other alive. I was about to find out.
There’s never a good time to go to our local post office, which closes for a long lunch in the middle of the day, making people crowd its dinky counter during all other hours. On the first day of my manners experiment, I step into the post office as an elderly woman demands her money back for a sheet of stamps.
“Why? What’s wrong with them?” the belligerent postal clerk wants to know. Although she’s shorter than a fifth grader, this clerk inspires terror in me with her ferocious Xena the Warrior Princess attitude.
“These stamps won’t stick to the envelopes,” the customer declares. Her face is red beneath her wool hat. “I wasted good money on them.”
“Too bad you got a bum sheet,” the clerk says, sounding bored. “I bought those same ones and they worked just fine for me.”
When it’s my turn, I gather my courage and step up to deflect Xena’s wrath with my steely manners shield. “Hi,” I say. “How are you?”
She scowls. Clearly I’ve already overstepped her boundaries. I soldier on, scanning the dog photos taped to the wall beside her. “Is that your dog?” I ask as she weighs my package.
To my surprise, the clerk opens right up. She tells me that her dog is a Hurricane Katrina rescue. Tales of surgery to repair her dog’s hip and a list of his favorite chew toys follow. As we complete our transaction, the clerk notices that I’m mailing my package to Spain.
“Ah, Spain,” she says with a sigh. “The most romantic place in the world.”
“You’ve been there?” I try not to sound shocked, but I can’t imagine this woman anywhere but behind her fortress of a postal counter.
“Oh yes.” The clerk breaks into a wide smile and I see the beautiful, elfin young woman she must once have been, a real heart breaker. “I traveled everywhere when I was young.” She leans forward and drops her voice. “I had a love affair with a man in Spain for two years.” She winks.
I close my mouth and count out the money I owe, thinking hard. Perhaps employing good manners is largely a matter of acknowledging others and making them feel heard. We just have to let other people know that we’re really listening. Not so easy, in this country where cocooning in front of a DVD or chatting online are national pastimes. We’re rusty. We pride ourselves on being autonomous and anonymous; it’s easy to forget about the wide vistas that can open up in a real social exchange.
These profound thoughts linger until I’m driving home and a driver cuts me off at an intersection. I honk my horn and give her the finger before I remember my mannerly self. I know full well that Grandmother and Emily Post would not approve of my behavior. Bless their hearts.
I’m in a hurry, running errands downtown, when I notice that my car is making a sound like a spatula slapping a counter. I get out, look at the flat tire, sigh, and drive to a nearby gas station. The mechanic says he’ll fix the tire in an hour.
When I call back an hour later, the mechanic admits that he hasn’t touched my car because he’s been swamped all morning. I feel my blood start to boil. I should have called AAA, I think, instead of trusting this yahoo. I could’ve arranged for someone else to pick my son up from school if I’d known it was going to take this long! I’m about to launch into a pissy rant when I remember Emily Post’s contention that “Lack of consideration for those who in any capacity serve you, is always evidence of ill-breeding, as well as of inexcusable selfishness.”
I take a deep breath and change tactics. “I’m so sorry you’re feeling swamped,” I tell the mechanic. “I hate to rush you. I apologize. It’s fine, really. I can call around and get a friend to pick up my son from school. When do you think I might be able to pick up the car?”
There’s a brief silence. Then the mechanic says that he’ll put my car on the lift right now. “I’ll have your car done in twenty minutes,” he promises. “I’m very sorry you had to wait.”
He hangs up. I sit there and study my cell phone, stunned. Was this an accident, or manners at work in the world? I reflect on my Grandmother again. She used her charm truly to disarm people, to get them to do her bidding. Was that manipulative or mannerly? What was the difference? The mechanic was now willing to put me first in line, possibly because, instead of blowing up at him, I’d expressed an understanding of his dilemma. My good manners had put my car on the lift, literally. Now others had to wait their turn.
On the other hand, I felt good about reining in my impatience, and perhaps the mechanic felt better because one of his customers had actually treated him well. He would be nicer to the next customer, maybe. I was beginning to see that good manners could be contagious.
I have a meeting in Boston today, a trip that requires me to travel by train and subway. Public transportation is a full-body immersion in etiquette, bad and good. The subway, especially, does not bring out the best manners in people who have to sit thigh-to-thigh or stand and clutch the metal bars, banging into fellow passengers as the train screeches around corners. The most mannerly thing people do on the subway is avoid eye contact.
On my way into the city, I consider the assumptions we make in crowds. We assume that there are pickpockets in the crowd, so we keep our purses clutched tightly to our sides. We assume that the man next to us might sneak a grope, so we wrap our coats around us like armor. At any moment, a lunatic might jump onto the train and start gibbering nonsense or singing for his supper. That’s life in a city. Be prepared.
Yet, we make other, hopeful assumptions, too. If there are old, frail or pregnant people, we expect somebody to give up a seat for them. We also believe that a loose toddler will be hauled out of danger by a passing stranger, and we trust drivers to get us to our destinations safely. Are manners contagious? If you witness an act of kindness, is that enough to provoke you to use better manners?
Later that day, I have to switch subway trains and change platform levels. The escalator is broken. I’m carrying a heavy laptop case and shopping bags, and it’s an endless flight of steps. I sigh. Just as I’m starting my ascent, a man materializes at my elbow. He is wearing a tan trenchcoat and has a French accent. Flasher, I immediately think. Pervert. Bless his heart.
The man grins and points. “Big stairs!” he says. “I can help you.”
He reaches for my laptop and bags. I hesitate only a minute, and then I hand everything over except my purse. I half expect him to pull a runner. But the man gallantly gestures for me to take the stairs ahead of him. He follows, lugging my gear. We smile and shake hands at the top of the broken escalator, and then he disappears into the crowd. Maybe manners aren’t contagious in the usual way, I think, waiting on the next train platform. Maybe it’s more like a manners aura, a rosy light that starts as a halo over one person and spreads across the planet from there, warming us all.
It is undoubtedly easier to act mannerly when you’re well fed, well slept, and have no work deadlines. But the flip side is that it’s easier to sleep, eat well, and meet your work obligations when you feel good about the way you conduct yourself in the world. I am continually surprised by how true this is as my experiment in manners continues. At a marketing meeting with a surly colleague who is miffed because nobody read his report, I apologize profusely for not getting it done and tell him that I know how frustrated he must feel. The man visibly melts. He explains how hard he worked on the report, and confesses that he doesn’t think he’s a very good writer. He worries that maybe that’s why nobody reads his stuff.
“I feel the same way about the things I write,” I assure him.
The man looks surprised. “But you’re a writer!” he says. “That’s what you do for a living. I’ve always wanted to do that.” He looks slightly ashamed as he adds, “I write poetry.”
Suddenly, I can see this man for who he really is: a frustrated poet who has somehow awakened in the middle of his life, in a job where he works in a cubicle, churning out reports. The truth is that his reports are chock full of important information, even if they are a little dull. My heart goes out to him.
“Without your reports, nobody would know what was going on,” I tell him. “They’re important. It’s just too bad that we’re all so overwhelmed, isn’t it?”
He agrees. We shake hands. “Keep writing your poetry,” I add.
He brightens. “Thanks,” he says.
I watch him walk away and wonder about all of the other secret lives around me. The thing about etiquette is that, if used properly, it’s nearly impossible not to find something interesting about everyone around you.
It’s been a quiet day at home, a peaceful Sunday with nothing more pressing than yard work. A solicitor calls as our family sits down to eat dinner. Generally I bark at these callers to take us off their call lists. But I’m still feeling up from my recent mannerly encounters. Besides, this call is from a charity I’ve supported in the past, one that helps rebuild homes. I employ my toolbox of manners in fending her off. The solicitor begins by saying, “Thank you for your generous donation. Your contribution of $50 has allowed us to build hundreds of homes this year.”
Really? The old, uncouth, sarcastic me would have said. For $50? I doubt you could even buy a window for that. Instead, I say, “Thank you for doing the hard work of raising money for such a good cause.”
The caller falls silent, momentarily derailed. She thinks I’m yanking her chain. I plunge ahead. “I really do appreciate your efforts. I’d like to contribute again, but right now I have four kids in college. If I can make the next tuition payments, I promise that you’ll be the first in line for a donation. Meanwhile, I hope that my kids will grow up to do worthwhile work like you’re doing.”
The caller sputters, then says, “Oh. Well, thank you. Have a good night.”
“You, too,” I say.
There is probably no greater test of manners than our local shopping plaza, which boasts the siren songs of T.J. Maxx, a Blockbuster and a grocery store. Here, gladiators in their death machines go head-to-head for the parking spaces closest to the door. One trip to the plaza is enough to make me want to lie down afterward with a pillow over my face. But today I have a new attitude: I will let the other guy win. All of the other guys. I will not circle the lot seven times, burning gas and patience in search of a good space. In fact, I won’t even bother to look for spots by the door. I need the exercise anyway.
I circle around to the empty outer reaches of the lot, where the deli clerks and baggers are told to park by the management of the grocery store. I park my Honda next to a rusty, dented sedan with a college sticker and wander toward the grocery store, unhindered by rage.
On my way home, I feel surprisingly serene. I have one more stop to make, at the dry cleaner, and this requires a left turn into oncoming traffic. The traffic is backed up from the stoplight, as it always is, and drivers in idling cars are blocking the entrance to the parking lot of the dry cleaner’s. I don’t blow my horn, though. I just sit there.
And then a funny thing happens: First, a driver pulls up to leave almost enough room for me to enter the parking lot. After that, not just one, but two drivers back up so that I can make my left turn. And all of them are smiling! I smile, wave, smile, wave. All of them wave back! Is this manners karma, or what?
The really strange thing is that I would have felt content even if nobody had moved to let me into the parking lot, because I’m already calm from not joining the fray in the parking lot. Being mannerly is a matter of ethics. It’s also a surefire way to feel better about yourself. I never realized how horrible I felt about being rude until I simply stopped.
On the last day of my manners experiment, I have two great coups. The first is in a store where I have to return something without a receipt. The clerk is standing right beneath a sign that clearly says, “No receipt, no return.” I notice the clerk’s necklace as I approach the desk. She raises her hand and touches it, noticing me noticing it. The necklace is a Celtic cross that looks like silver twigs wound together. I compliment it, then present my dilemma: I bought a pair of pants without trying them on. Could I please exchange them? When she smiles and says yes, I make a another note to self: People really do warm to you when you notice them and appreciate their efforts, whether they’re changing a tire or wearing something special.
Pants in hand, I head out into the driving rain and cross the street to Starbucks. Like our local post office, this Starbucks is a battleground, with virtual office workers vying with their laptops for the best tables. They set up like squatters, buying office space for the price of a coffee. I know this because I am one of them.
I score a coveted central table away from the chilly door. I spread out my papers and sip my tea, happy and warm. Then a pair of women come in with shopping bags and search the place. There are no tables left, just the counter.
Is it good manners to offer them my seat, even if they’re shopping and I’m working? I wonder. Or would that be a selfless act that I’ll resent?
The only way to know is to do it: I say hello and offer them my table. I can move to a stool at the counter. The women are startled. They protest, uncertain, casting their eyes about the room for another option. There isn’t any. Finally they acquiesce. I move to the counter which, as I suspected, is too narrow to work on, yet I manage.
Ten minutes later someone taps me on the shoulder. It’s one of the women. The other one has gleefully commandeered the only window table and is holding it for me. “We thought you should have it, you’re so nice,” they say, and we’re all smiling. Bless our hearts.