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Manners, Anyone?

(posted by proprietor Michael of Cafe Loco after an exchange with a rude customer.)

Is it just me, or are good manners becoming passé?

For most of my life I’ve believed that good manners were a social rite of passage indicative of a solid upbringing. Those who had a tenuous hold on etiquette were either ill bred or lacking the keen eye of a mimic. Take Cary Grant, for example. Born Archie Leach in working-class Bristol, England, the man completely reinvented himself. His father was a drunk and a dandy, his mother committed to a mental asylum. Yet Grant, who left no stone unturned in cultivating a carefully repronounced mid Atlantic accent, also educated himself thoroughly in the finer points of decorum. His ex wives, of which there were at least four, all extolled the virtues of his gentlemanly good manners. (Except for Dyan Canon, who claimed he spanked her. Such behavior is not only the height of bad manners, but also spousal abuse.)

In recent weeks I have been forced to take a long hard look at the yardstick by which I measure polite behavior and give it a healthy wack in half with one of my husband’s axes. Even snapped in two, its scope seems too long for the current generation.

Here’s an example:

The other day I was kept waiting in excess of 20 minutes at the hair salon. The hairdresser, who was busy rolling up a client’s hair in tight curlers, barely acknowledged me as I walked through the door. And the client, a formidable windbag, did not cease her chatter for even a minute to let me address the stylist. Added to that, the only available chair was already occupied—by the oversized purse of the soon-to-be becurled Chatty Cathy parked in the stylist’s chair. I stood awkwardly, awaiting acknowledgement. Chatty continued nattering on. The stylist didn’t interrupt her. Finally, when Chatty drew breath, I inquired politely: “Am I early?” (I had a sneaking suspicion that the true appointment time was 11:30 rather than 11 o’clock and that I was in error.) I sincerely hoped so. Ill manners get my shackles up like little else, and my long-studied, compassionate armchair Buddhist kindness starts fluttering toward the window. Call me a product of my upbringing.

The stylist turned and delivered the very answer I feared.

“No, you aren’t early.” She cracked a half smile, but no apology was offered.

“No problem,” I muttered.

But I was floored, as I always am, by an utterly dismissive (not to say déclassé) attitude of a proprietor toward a paying customer in a place of business.

I shuffled off to a cold outer room where a small, uncomfortable loveseat provided the accommodation the chair (utterly hogged by the inanimate purse) couldn’t offer. And mulled over the experience. Inside 20 minutes my nemesis the windbag had been put under the dryer, and my stylist arrived, all smiles, to great me.

“Okay, come on back,” she beamed.

But still, there was no mention of the fact that I’d been kept waiting. No simple “I’m sorry,” which would have flown to my lips as quickly as the “thank you so much!” I lavish on any good soul who waits on me.

Once I was being shampooed and coiffed and fawned over, however, I soon forgot my former grudge.

Until it happened again somewhere else, that is.

The next experience in excruciating poor manners came when I went to the trouble to personally return a router and other equipment to a former ISP. This company hadn’t specified return of the equipment, but as I dislike the over-spillage in our landfills, I was eager to recycle. I entered the small front office with my three and a half year old son (who, as luck would have it, was behaving well that day).

“Excuse me,” I said politely to the receptionist, “I was wondering if I could return…”

“I’m on a call,” she cut me off brusquely. ‘You can sit over there.” (Indicating a chair in the far corner.)

Now, had my powers of observation been keener, I might have observed the tiny ear bud device that was my signal that this woman was indeed on a call and busy at work. However, how much more lung capacity would it have taken for her to utter a simple and gracious reply, such as: “I’ll be right with you. Please have a seat”?

Let’s do the word count, shall we? Nine words expounded in the (first) real utterance and nine in the (second) hypothetical one. For the cost of no extra words, this company representative could have endeared herself to me. Instead, I thought seriously of storming out with my son in tow. And felt more than vindicated in having terminated my business with this ISP to begin with. The only thing that prevented me from heading for the door was the router; I was determined to be a good citizen and return it.

While it is mostly easy to shrug off these considerable pieces of rudeness in the short term, it’s the long-term fall-out which concerns me. While I work hard at home to instruct my son in the importance of the words “please” and “thank-you” and other niceties, my control over the behavior of the greater world is about as omnipotent as a 100 watt light bulb’s chance of thawing the Arctic.

One option I’ve considered is to simply become downright rude myself. To give as good as I get. While it might be an enjoyably mischievous project in the short term, it would certainly not cut muster in the long term. As the granddaughter of a man who insisted that I butter my dinner roll on the plate and not “in the air,” I’m simply too well trained. Good manners are as deeply imbedded in me as my dog’s microchip. I’ve noted lately that I’m probably even overly formal with my parents. Short of calling them “sir” and “ma’am”, I refrain from profanity, speak correctly, and rush to open doors and wait on them. The fact that they are senior citizens, not to mention the people who brought me into this world, warrants it.

I was ready to write off all of society until the other day, when I made a call to a local community college where I am planning to enroll in a web design course. I braced myself for a disembodied voice, or worse, an indifferent operator. To my intense surprise, I got neither. The conversation ran something like this:

“Hello ma’am. How can I help you?”

“Do I enroll on the internet or by talking to you?”

“On the Internet, ma’am. But I will be more than happy to help you if you have any problems.”

“Thank-you.”

“Is there anything more I can do for you, ma’am?”

“No, but thanks very much for asking.”

“You have a wonderful day ma’am.”

I put down the phone, more surprised by my surprise than anything. And smiled and clapped and went on to have the wonderful day I was gently asked to have.

Maybe there’s hope for humanity yet.

Comments

Comment from FjordWoman
Time December 5, 2008 at 10:28 am

You are so right!
I, too, have often wondered if manners have not become extinct.
I was raised much as you were,and taught to treat all people with grace,dignity, and respect. But I have also spent the last 43 years on Long Island, and have learned to hone my social skills to be assertive yet kind, lest I be run over and left for dead by any of the locals!
But, then sometimes, all of my upbringing is tossed aside and I find myself swearing like a sailor at the effusive rudeness that is so thick in the air around here that it can be mistaken for fog!
Your hairdresser experience is also very similar to mine. They often act as if they are doing you the greatest favor by cutting your hair.Pul-eaze!

Comment from Elefanterosado
Time December 5, 2008 at 1:22 pm

It may be time for me to get slightly tougher skin…or perhaps a slightly better sense of humor about it!