Slobs and Boors Signal Death of Civility

Sometime in the early 1980s, when David Patrick Columbia was working as a writer in Hollywood, actor Bill Cosby started an alarming trend that defied the industry's longstanding culture of formality.

Cosby — at the height of his popularity as Cliff Huxtable on "The Cosby Show" — walked on a Hollywood set in a pair of Nike sneakers. Before long, everyone followed suit.

"In the old days of movies, every man went to work in a jacket and tie and he didn't walk into the studio if he didn't have a hat on," said Columbia, editor and co-founder of the New York Social Diary, which chronicles the city's elite.

"Cosby was big star, and within a month the director was wearing them," said Columbia, now 66. "In six months, the assistant director and the script girl were wearing them. Now everyone all over the world is. One man with authority and position changed the costume."


Slowly, over several decades, Americans have been dropping their dress codes in the workplace, honorifics in the classroom and now capital letters in their e-mails. Today, formality and civility seem be the ugly step-sisters of a bygone age.

When Did Formality End?

"I don't know when it changed, but there is a complete lack of formality today, and it's a strange phenomenon," said Columbia, who claims that today only two fancy restaurants in New York City still require a coat and tie — La Grenouille and the "21" club.

"People look like slobs and they don't seem to care or have any consciousness about it," he said. As a society, "we are seriously undisciplined."


Tattered jeans hung low, mini-skirts with muffin tops, shirts untucked and overweight women bulging out of short-shorts are a common sight in the most exclusive settings. And that doesn't touch on the greasy, unwashed hair common among young hipsters and the visible "crack" above baggy trousers worn by rapper wannabes.

"The standards have changed for sure," said Anna Post, who is the great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, the doyenne of modern courtesy. "Dress-down Fridays, weddings barefoot on the beach and people going to church dressed like they are going to mow the lawn."

Casual Friday has morphed into casual anytime at Broadway shows, high-end restaurants and almost every public venue. In some of the New York's finest eateries, Columbia has seen people "weighing 300 pounds in Bermuda shorts and T-shirts that don't fit. They are revolting."


The work place, weddings, even churches now cater to the casual look. On Sundays, Catholic churches that once required ladies to cover their heads and wear white gloves now cater to parishioners in all forms of dress, from beachwear to pajama bottoms.

"There is no law against it, but when you get dressed, you make a choice, in part, about how people are going to react to you," said Post, who with two generations of her family works for the Burlington, Vt.-based Emily Post Institute.

And clothes are just the beginning.

Who decided it was time for children to call their teachers by their first names? And when did the thank-you note go the way of the Dodo bird?

Revolutions in Etiquette

"Throughout history there has been the question: How should man live? How should we behave? How should we treat one another? The minute you have a community, you have to have some form of etiquette, of hierarchy, of recognition, just to keep people from killing one another," said Judith Martin, who has written the popular syndicated column "Miss Manners" since 1978.

In the mid-20th century, there was one of many cyclical attempts to overthrow etiquette as "artificial and snobbish." That attitude re-emerged in the egalitarian 1960s and 1970s, but now the pendulum is swinging the other way.

But Martin says that while society may have slipped in some arenas — most notably its dress code — Americans have made great strides in extending "dignity" to all. The way we dress, she says, doesn't necessarily dictate the way we act.

"We have made enormous advances in the last decade when it was acceptable to make terrible bigoted remarks and jokes," she said.

Judged By Your Appearance?

While the slacker dress code of today may not be objectionable in some parts, some in the business world say appearance accounts for more than half of how a person is judged.

"I wear clothing that is clean and pressed, tidy and tucked in," said Post. "My hair is brushed and neat, my face is washed and I wear a little make-up and not too much perfume. I do feel I am treated better when I dress nicely, and that doesn't mean expensive."

But for some the casual culture has been good for business, according to Ron Fox, a North Carolina-based psychologist and organization consultant. Working with successful high-tech companies around the globe, he says, the "emphasis is on outcome," not looks.

"They are used to working informally, and I think it's a good thing," Fox told said. "And we can't go back. Some agencies I go into gave up the tie a long time ago, and some don't know what a tie is."

At 72, Fox himself now wears an open shirt and khakis at presentations. Though he rarely sees shorts in the workplace, "dressy sandals are creeping in."

Along with dress, the interaction between management and worker has also become more casual. "You don't see much tolerance for bosses who are 'my way or the highway,' and everything is on a first-name basis," said Fox.

The more relaxed atmosphere can create marketplace pressure that eventually even reins in rudeness, according to etiquette experts.

"If a boss is not user-friendly, [talented workers] move down the street for more money. They don't want to take a lot of guff," Fox said.

Say Goodbye to Mrs. and Mr.

This new casualness permeates not only the business and entertainment world, but the classroom as well.

Jackie Judd, a 55-year-old mother who formerly worked as a reporter for ABC News, was shocked when she enrolled her young children in a school where students call teachers by their first names.

The Washington, D.C., mother admits she errs on the old-fashioned side and is a stickler for some formalities, forbidding her now teenage sons to use common vulgarities or dress "with their boxer shorts hanging out."

At first, the school's policy seemed wrong, she said.

"It bothered me because I thought it showed disrespect, and there was too much informality between adults and children," she said. "In my day, I would have been sent straight to the principal's office and my mother would be been called."

But Judd soon realized that dropping the honorifics made no difference in how the children treated their teachers.

"I concluded that in that environment, it didn't make a difference," she said. "It took a lot of getting used to, but now when I worry about their education and their future, and how they are growing up, this really pales."

Others complain about public swearing, road rage and rudeness. Civility-conscious parents worry that the in-your-face culture filters down to their children.

Thank-You Cards and Cell Phones

Holly Posner, who raised two daughters in Larchmont, N.Y., required them to routinely write thank-you notes, "the kind with ink, letters, stamps and an envelope."

That formality is fast becoming a "dying art," according to Posner, and today's casual disregard of manners shows society's "increasing narcissism."

While crossing the street during a parade in the city recently, Posner was repeatedly shoved with a woman's stroller. When she complained that her ankles "hurt," the stranger shouted back, "You need to walk faster!"

Blaring cell phones now dominate public life. Even presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani interrupted a televised speech to answer his wife's call.

"Answering every call you get on your cell phone means your time is more important than mine," said Posner. "Don't answer unless your mother-in-law is on fire or you are bidding on a Gauguin at Sotheby's."

Historically, "dressing up" was a way for families to mark special events — graduation, funerals and family holidays — but now even Posner admits she has given in. At Christmas, she no longer requires her family to put on their Sunday best.

"Civility being dead is probably not as shattering as Nietzsche's 'God is dead,' but it's certainly on the decline," she said.

But Martin, the "Miss Manners," columnist, said rumors of the death of civility have been exaggerated.

"We've been whining about it for 2,000 years," Martin told "It's cyclical and when manners get complicated people simplify them."

In a 2005 interview for Humanities magazine, Martin said American etiquette is always undergoing revolution.

She believes the true emphasis should be on how people relate to one another regardless of any accepted rules of etiquette. Martin receives thousands of letters from readers and the mainstay of her advice is, "If you want others to treat you well, behave well yourself."

Anna Post agrees.

"The values of the world are exactly the same since Emily Post wrote her book in 1922," she said. "Treat people with consideration, respect and honesty. And be benevolent at times. Not everyone needs to know they have a bad haircut."