Have Americans Forgotten Their Manners?

ByAmanda Onion

Dec. 2, 2003 -- You know the type. The kind who knocks your shoulder with no apology in his rush to his very important meeting. The one who unloads 37 items at the "10 Items or Less" lane. The harried shopper who barks orders at sales staff as though she's the only customer.

People can be rude and it appears rude people are on the rise.

After a surge of goodwill among fellow Americans following the Sept. 11 attacks, manner experts and others have observed a marked drop in courtesy. At a post-Thanksgiving sale last week, for example, Florida shoppers trampled a woman and rendered her unconscious in their rush to a Wal-Mart sale, while in Louisiana, video captured a shoving match between shoppers.

One survey commissioned from ORC International by Lenox, a gift company, confirms an increase in such brusque behavior. The survey found more than one-third of 1,000 people polled rate the manners of Americans as poor. That's nearly a 50 percent jump from 2002 and a 65 percent drop from results of the same poll in 2001.

Of course, none of these rude people include ourselves — or so we believe. Most Americans rate their own manners as … well, quite excellent.

And therein lies the rub, say etiquette instructors.

"Etiquette is not just about what fork to use," said Sandra Morisset, a professional etiquette trainer in New York City. "It's all about your self awareness and treating others with respect. If you're not aware of your behavior, that's a problem."

Economy, Parents, Tech to Blame?

Why do we behave the way we do? Ask a dozen people and you'll get a dozen answers from hard times to bad parenting to too much technology. All seem to point to a "me" focused society.

Among accounts solicited from ABCNEWS.com readers, many blame bad behavior on new generations. "Young people believe they are "entitled" to almost anything," says Donna Dickerson of Tampa, Fla.

Read accounts from readers here.

Others say people have become rude because they're too focused on money: "With the economy the way it is, employment low, and greed high, it seems that people forget what life is all about," says Jacqueline Simmons of Overland Park, Kan.

Some place blame on parents. "Many parents teach their children to avoid being bullied by speaking what's on their mind," says Vanessa Robinson, a schoolteacher from Newark, Del. "But unfortunately, they do not teach a polite, appropriate way to do so."

Cynthia Grosso, founder of the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette in South Carolina, cautions against pointing the finger.

"We all find people irritating, that's a fact," she says. "But the bottom line is — how you treat people is not about how they are, it's about how you are."

Still, Grosso and Morisset admit at least one factor does appear to stand out as generally detracting from polite society — the same factor that has supposedly made our lives easier — technology.

"It's assumed we can use technology any way we can," said Morisset. "The problem is technology was given to us but the instructions weren't."

Don’t Take That Call

Before cell phones, for example, people couldn't even consider yakking on the phone at the dinner table or in the theater. Last May, AT&T solicited a survey from Harris Interactive that found 51 percent of cell phone users said they think other Americans use their cell phones in a "somewhat" or "very" discourteous manner.

Grosso calls cell phones "one of the best but rudest inventions of our time."

Then there's e-mail. The new language of the digital age may be efficient, but it can all too often come across as cold, even rude.

"We've become very noncommunicative," says Grosso. "We're happy when we can just send an e-mail. But we need to communicate more and when we do, we need good etiquette."

Playing Miss Manners

More communication was just what Joanna Oltman Smith had in mind when she created CivilCity.org, a Web site dedicated to, in her words, "helping people confront others while not being confrontational."

While Morisset and Grosso advise it's not good manners to criticize others' bad behavior, Smith argues it can be healthy to point out — in a gentle way — when people are being rude. Smith's site offers one approach.

It works this way: You see someone dropping trash on the street or cutting you off. Pass them a card, decorated with a pretty yellow flower that reads: "You are behaving badly. For more information, go to CivilCity.org."

The offender will then hopefully visit the site, which features categories including public transportation, cell phones and cleanliness, and learn why their behavior was rude.

"We're about human interaction," says Smith. "Maybe from an etiquette standpoint it may not be appropriate, but to us, it's about how people treat each other on a day to day basis."

The cards cost $6.99 for 100 and Smith says she has sold about 5,000 since launching the site in March. Sales are not quite as swift as she'd hoped they might be and she has heard feedback suggesting many may be fearful of angry reactions. But Smith contends as long as you approach people politely, there's no need to worry.

She uses the cards regularly and more often than not, she says, she's pleasantly surprised by the reactions.

"I don't try and give them to people who are clearly out of their mind, but if someone's being oblivious or lazy, I hand them the card," she said. "And you know what — most people, when they're called on it, they apologize."

Manners 101

As the hectic holidays approach, Morisset and Grosso offer some tips for staying civil:

Be Patient: Especially when shopping this time of year, realize that everyone wants attention and there are only so many sales staff.

Always say "please" and "thank you." It makes a big difference.

At the dinner table, don't eat anything until the host has begun to eat, no elbows on the table, keep your bites small and dab, don't wipe your mouth with your napkin.

Keep your alcoholic drinks to two at office parties.

Don't answer your cell phone at the table or in the theater. If you have to, excuse yourself and take the call outside.

Irritated with friends or family? Focus on the positive and remember the holidays will soon be over.

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