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 sense of escape as the “willing suspension of disbelief,” where, for ninety minutes or so, we are willing to accept that ET is actually riding on a bike across the sky, or that we’re dining on the Titanic, or wondering why Batman and Superman allowed that film to be made. Millions of dollars of technical know-how are brought to bear for the single purpose of engaging our senses and lifting us into a momentary flight of the imagination.
Sadly, on a couple of recent visits to the movie theater, that flight never made it off the ground; what with the ringing of cell phones, people conversing out loud, and uncontrolled children (and adults) making their presence known. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, whatever happened to manners?
As a child, the idea of manners seemed so stuffy. But even back then, shared experiences like concerts, movies and plays evoked an unwritten rule of consideration for your fellow viewer/listener. 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 12 or so bucks. Am I remembering my childhood through rose-colored glasses, or are people more inconsiderate now than they were years ago?
Manners are uniquely human, but not automatic. 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 and self-respect. On the surface, it would seem the only reason to be polite would be for the sake of others. But in all honesty, strangers don’t matter. They are entitled to be left alone, but are they 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 to restrain some of our more provocative impulses in return for living more or less harmoniously. 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 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, violence and frivolous – and the not-so-frivolous – lawsuits follow very quickly.”
She’s right. And 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 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 – AND I don’t want to interrupt my own enjoyment either. 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.
Judith Martin goes on to say that many people resist manners because they seem hypocritical and artificial. There’s some truth to that. People have always used politeness to cover up hypocrisy and insincerity. 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 watch movies at home. I don’t want to be reminded of how little self-esteem some people have. Rude people embarrass themselves, and I don’t need to pay money to experience that.