Where the hell have our manners gone? It happens too frequently: your cubicle mate insists on eating tuna fish sandwiches at her desk. With a side of kimchi. The sloppily dressed man in the gate area is clipping his fingernails. Of course, he will be sitting next to you on the plane. The couple at the nearby cafe table have yet to silence either of their continuously chirping and ringing phones. Finally, the woman answers a call. On speakerphone.
What has happened to us? Why aren’t we considerate to the people around us? Why is no one teaching children social norms and etiquette any longer? It used to be that bad manners meant eating with your elbows on the table or using the wrong fork for your salad. Alas, no more. Our public manners have disintegrated into far more nefarious crimes than the misuse of cutlery. We no longer open doors for each other, or show up for events we mindlessly RSVP to. And when we do attend an Evite dinner party, we bring along five guests the host wasn’t expecting.
Many blame our escalating bad behavior on the easy access to phones, tablets, and social media—Facebook scrolling at dinner, texting during a movie, or partaking in Facetime conversations on the subway.
Over 75 percent of people surveyed by Debrett’s, a British modern etiquette school, believe manners have been wrecked by mobile technology dependence. 72 percent think mobile devices encourage rude behavior. We’ve all been painfully behind the person in the Starbucks line that can’t pause their conversation long enough to order coffee.
But it’s much more than technology; it’s a lack of consideration for the people around us.
Bring back the etiquette
In 1893, Walter R. Houghton et al. published the Rules of Etiquette and Home Culture; or, What to do and how to do it. “As it is self-evidently improper in conversation to contradict bluntly or to interrupt another while talking, so there are improprieties in the public assemblage so manifestly unbecoming that the well-bred man instinctively refrains from them,” he wrote. Sorry sir, our instincts are off. Way off. If Houghton were still alive today, I’d be begging for a 2016 revision to include open workspaces, air travel, and technology faux pas.
Writer Rob Asghar too is wistful for the etiquette teachings of yore. As he points out, the original manuals like Emily Post’s Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics and at Home, were about more than just manners. They were intended to be success books—ensuring that you didn’t offend anyone and sabotage your own advancement.
Not quite sure what to do? Stop for a moment and ask, "Would Emily Post approve?"
But sabotage we do. Bad etiquette has run amok in offices, and according to an Accountemps survey, the worst offenders are: using a speakerphone or talking loudly, loitering or talking near a colleague’s desk, eating odorous food, being messy, and leaving your phone ringer on loud. Why do these annoying, but seemingly innocuous things matter? 85 percent of people say that being courteous at work—being nice, being respectful, having good manners—has a measurable impact on one’s career. Being a good public steward matters, especially since 70 percent of us are now in wide-open office environments. Look left, look right, look straight ahead, there is probably a person very near.
Your sense may not be common
The challenge in today’s fast-changing society is that there isn’t consensus around the social norms. The rules keep changing, and few are staying ahead of the curve and educating the rest of us. Instead, we rely on instincts and ‘common sense’ to guide us. But if no one is teaching the proper social norms, then it can be argued that both our instincts and our common sense may be outdated and too personal. “Here there are laid down for society, certain rules which we must observe if we have regard for the feelings of others,” Houghton wrote. “These rules are not arbitrary, but, like all other rules of politeness, are founded upon natural instincts and common sense.”
If our instincts aren’t based in empathy or our common sense is selfishly rooted, then our manners are unfortunately going to reflect that.
Asghar agrees. “Think about other people’s feelings first because it’s not all about maximizing your personal convenience.” But if our instincts aren’t based in empathy or our common sense is selfishly rooted, then our manners are unfortunately going to reflect that.
And indeed, our increasingly global society complicates things even more. What is acceptable in one culture may not be appropriate in another. With these numerous nuances to think about, perhaps it’s time for us all to attend finishing school.
Finishing school? Did you say finishing school?
Yes, finishing school is still a thing. It may not be as popular as it was in the 1800’s, but etiquette programs are making a comeback.
London-based Debrett’s was founded in 1769 and still offers traditional etiquette courses on coming of age, hosting and entertainment, and seasonal styles. Over the years, they’ve expanded into more modern programs like social skills, interviewing, and business protocol. In New York, the Professional Image Management company focuses on decreasing the generational rifts frequently found in business relationships. "Boomers want young people to establish relationships the way they do it," says their president and self-proclaimed Etiquette Expert Juanita Ecker. "And that's not going to happen. They haven't been coached on how to send an email with complete sentences that are not filled with acronyms."
More and more companies are acknowledging the need for decorum training and are employing firms like The Etiquette School of New York or the Emily Post Institute to conduct seminars on appropriate corporate behavior and global protocol. Dorthea Johnson, the founder of The Protocol School of Washington, urges start-ups and Fortune 500 firms alike to consider the value to employees—both in and out of the office. "We are not free to merely act as we please; but we must act with mutual consideration as befits our interdependence," she says. "Although the spirit of etiquette remains the same, the expression of etiquette–the rules of conduct which govern social life and our associations with one another—is forever evolving to adjust to the times."
Whether you check yourself into an etiquette 12-step program, or simply choose to be more mindful of your mobile behavior: keep your bad manners in check and your good manners at the forefront. Words like 'please' and 'thank you' are still in fashion. Phones belong in pockets and not in the theater. Holding the elevator door is generationally appreciated. Not quite sure what to do? Stop for a moment and ask, "Would Emily Post approve?"
And next time you are in a public restroom, put your phone away. No one, I mean no one, wants to be part of that conversation.
Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate. When she's not wandering the world, she's a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter: @stealeyreed.