Why bother with manners, anyway?

I love movies. Some of the best times I had as a kid were spent in the movie theater, escaping into the realm of fantasy. Professional filmmakers refer to that feeling of ‘escape,’ created by the seamless blend of picture and sound, as the ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ For ninety minutes or so, immersed in quiet darkness, we are willing to accept that ET is actually riding on a bike across the sky. Or that we’re on the deck of the Titanic, hearing the North Atlantic wind whistle through the rigging. Millions of dollars worth of technical know-how are brought to bear for the single purpose of engaging our senses and lifting us onto a momentary flight of the imagination.

Sadly, my last few visits to the movie theater were not very pleasant. Any ‘flight of the imagination’ that might have been, never made it off the ground—what with the constant ringing of cell phones, people conversing out loud, and uncontrolled children (and adults) making their presence known. At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon, whatever happened to manners?

As a child, the idea of ‘manners’ always seemed so stuffy. I cringed when somebody preached to me about my latest transgression against others’ sensibilities. But, even back then, it seemed that shared experiences like concerts, movies and plays evoked an unwritten rule of consideration for your fellow viewer/listener. But nowadays, people act as if they’re somehow ‘entitled’ to do whatever they wish—other than shut up and sit quietly—just because they forked over their $10.50. Am I just remembering my childhood through rose-colored glasses, or are people more rude and inconsiderate now than they were years ago?

Manners are uniquely human, but not automatic. Obviously it helps if you were well trained as a child. But there has to be some reason for maintaining manners as an adult. The best reason I can think of is pride, or maybe self-respect. After all, why bother to be polite? On the surface, it would seem the only reason would be for the sake of other people. But in all honesty, strangers don’t matter. They are entitled to be left alone, but are they really entitled to our good manners?

Syndicated columnist Judith Martin (the legendary ‘Miss Manners’) writes, ‘Etiquette is about all of human social behavior. Behavior is regulated by law when etiquette breaks down or when the stakes are high—violations of life, limb, property, and so on. Barring that, etiquette is a little social contract we make that we will restrain some of our more provocative impulses in return for living more or less harmoniously in a community. Of course, when you throw etiquette aside, as has been roundly done over the last few decades, you end up with the ‘road rage’ phenomenon. People say very proudly, ‘I don’t care about etiquette,’ because they don’t understand what it is. They have the mistaken idea that etiquette is some kind of little ritual for snobs. But when you throw it away, the violence, the frivolous lawsuits, and the not-so-frivolous lawsuits follow very quickly.’

She’s right. Many people actually seem proud to have renounced manners. The underlying attitude appears to be that rudeness liberates one from the mental effort of having to be polite.

But, does it really serve your own interest to lower yourself into offensiveness? When I turn off my cell phone before a theatrical performance, I’m not doing it for other people. I’m doing it because I would be personally embarrassed if it rang. I’d be horrified if the person I spent my money to see heard it, or was disturbed by my negligence. Of course, I also don’t want to interrupt my own enjoyment of the performance, and I respect the right of others to the same. Manners must stem—at least initially—from a sense of self-interest and self-preservation. That’s why I still have them.

Maybe this is why so many people have abandoned them. They figure, ‘Why do I owe this to other people?’ They take pride in ‘liberating’ themselves from dignity and self-respect, but they haven’t examined how it serves their own interest to be civilized.

Judith Martin goes on to say that many people resist manners because they seem hypocritical and artificial. There’s some truth to this. People, at least in the past when manners were dominant, often used politeness to cover up hypocrisy and insincerity. But why blame manners for these undesirable traits? People also give gifts or do other nice things in a context of hypocrisy. Does this mean we have to stop giving gifts?

In the end, it’s probably not all that complicated. Manners go by the wayside when people become mentally lazy. Why exert the effort to hold the door for a stranger, or turn off your cell phone in a nice restaurant, if you just don’t feel like it?

I view sloppy manners like sloppy dressing, bad hygiene or a messy house. People let these things go when they feel less enthused about living, and less proud of themselves. That’s why I now only watch movies at home. I don’t want to be reminded of how little self-esteem some people possess. Rude people embarrass themselves, and I don’t need to pay $10.50 to be embarrassed for them.