February 15, 2007
Recently a business man traveling from Dallas to Newark related an incident he had on a previous flight. When he boarded the plane, he was surprised to see a young lady already in his seat. He checked his ticket. It
was his seat. The young woman noticed what he did and smiled in the direction of the little boy and his father seated next to her. The businessman said he understood and was willing to take her assigned seat. She pointed to the seat directly in front of her. Politely the businessman sat down. The seat next to him was empty.
Within a few moments, a rather full-sized woman showed up with the stewardess and a seat-belt extension. She squeezed into the empty seat and tried to make herself comfortable for the flight. The seat truly was too small. It did not take long for the businessman to realize that the young lady in the seat behind him was in no way related to the little boy and man in the same row. She had simply chosen to dupe him for her own convenience.
Not many people would be surprised that this happened. So many ways of acting today indicate that we have lost a sense of obligation to others. We tend to place our needs above those of others, our comfort over theirs. In fact, 52% of passengers and 69% of workers in the travel industry say a decline in values and morality leads people to be less polite and respectful. (cf.
Push Comes to Shove: Passengers and Travel Workers Call Rudeness a Real Problem, The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2003)
Americans encounter more and more impoliteness and lack of respect in their daily lives. People drive with the radio blasting. They mingle in a crowd with their iPods so loud that it’s easier to just sing along. Riding on a train or waiting for a flight at the airport, we are forced to listen to others conduct their business or broadcast the most personal details of their lives on their cell phones. Such loud conversations and noise invade our personal space and rob us of our peace of mind. Good manners are gone!
How many times people come out of the supermarket to their car only to find it attacked by a shopping cart someone else has inconsiderately left in the parking lot. Aggressive drivers, road rage, rude sales clerks, poor customer service: these are but a few examples of a deeper phenomenon. Nearly 80% of Americans bemoan the lack of respect and the demise of courtesy. And almost as many indicate our manners are only getting worse. (cf.
Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report on Rudeness in America., the Pew Charitable Trusts, 2002)
The break-down in courtesy is most apparent and more insidious in some of our schools. Where the young should be trained in respect for others, in many cases, it simply isn’t happening. In fact, some of our schools have become breeding grounds for lack of respect to others. An estimated 525,000 attacks, shakedowns, and robberies occur in public high schools each month. Each school day, 16,000 crimes are committed on or near school property. Every day about 135,000 students carry guns to school (William Kilpatrick,
Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong, 1992, p. 14)
Stephen Carter, Professor of Law at Yale University, astutely points to our culture’s deep-seated materialism and individualism as fueling the demise of manners in our society. We seek fulfillment in having more of the best for ourselves. We see ourselves as the center of the world. We demand that we be left free to get whatever we want. (Stephen Carter,
Minding Our Manners, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer Transcript, August 5, 1998)
Hurried and harried Americans only add more stress to their lives by their rude manners. But good manners provide a way to deal with stressful situations. Courtesy makes living together pleasant.
Politeness takes effort. It requires personal sacrifice. It means at times putting someone’s right before our own. At times it means even forgoing our own right for the sake of another. Such attitudes only come about when individuals no longer see themselves as the center of the universe. Good manners, therefore, are born of a sense of the transcendence and responsibility for one’s actions before God. Conversely, the more God and religion are marginalized, the more manners deteriorate.
But the awareness that there is more to life than my needs or the things of this world opens us to the beauty of the other. It helps us to respect each other. To re-inject civility in our society, each of us needs the humility to remember that we are one of many. We live in this world with all our uniqueness as part of a wider community. For many of the ills that come from living in a world with others, a healthy dose of civility is a needed antidote. Only in polite interrelatedness can we achieve happiness. Perhaps it’s time we mind our manners!