Alexandra Collard

Editor in chief , The Beauty Magazine

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What ever happened to common decency? Are manners no longer part of US culture?

I don't understand why only wealtheir people still maintain levels of decency when the majority of citizens do not. I don't think money should influence your level of decency. No matter who you are or what you have or have not, you can still say please and thank you, your welcome, or hold the door or the elevator for someone, why don't parents teach the basics anymore? We were not wealthy, but we were taught the rules of decency above all else. Is it because it is a low priority or not even a consideration? It makes a world of difference if you take a moment to be polite and considerate, so why does it seem so hard to do? I can't abide a person who you say "Thank you" to -replies with hmpf or huh... what is that?

  • Aug 1 2011: I completely agree with you. I remember I used to have a Pajama Sam computer game when I was 7 and it taught basic etiquette. Sadly, even the basics are close to forgotten. I often go to the store and find myself opening a door for an older woman only to have 6 or 7 people rush in after her, forcing me to stand there with the door open. One of the weirdest things is how kids address adults - like a friend's parent. I remember I always said Mr or Mrs and then their last name. If it was hard to pronounce, it was Mrs or Mr first name. I babysit two of my little brother's friends, and even though I have known them for years, their dad is Mr. Last Name. It's a sign of respect. When i caught my little brother calling him by just his first name, it made me sad. There is almost no respect anymore.
    On the flip side, though, the Dallas public transit system gave me hope. My family rode the rail across town twice, and that whole day, I saw more manners and decency than i ever had before. People who can't even afford to drive cars, or don't ave them would rush to return dropped wallets and briefcases, would offer their seats to women, would help people on and off. That is how we should be. But no. We can't get our heads out of our electronics and relate to fellow humans.
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    Aug 4 2011: Alexandra,

    I know wealthy people who are far from decent and non-wealthy people who are decency embodied. Parents and children from all economic realms of US society live in a culture that expresses indecency so persistently it is tremendously difficult to mitigate its effect on adults, let alone children.

    For single parents or others whose parenting job is compounded by circumstances, culture becomes an even bigger factor. Children's development, as it does in other parts of the world, must be shared with community.

    But even the most privileged children reflect cultures values as much as their parents. While they may know how to say Thank You at apropos times, they also can be quite rude.

    A sad example: a stadium of high school students from one of the wealthiest areas in my state chanted "go back to your food stamps" to the visiting basketball rivals, who traveled from a less monied place to play them. An essay I wrote that includes the incident:

    There is an accompanying sense of entitlement that is related to lack of gratitude and associated manners, in cases I observe in both adults and children. My observation is this entitlement seems related to privilege. While the more structural faux pas seems more related to lack of continual exposure to such manners in home, community and culture.

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      Aug 4 2011: Education should play its role in this case.Those rude teens in your story should be grateful with what they have and stop mocking the poor.

      Question : Is the subject of civics included in the American education system?
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        Aug 4 2011: Muhammed,

        The subject civics is taught, but it is in the history realm, which is secondary in the eyes of policy makers to reading and math. Pro-social behavior lessons are even further down the list of what policymakers are willing to fund.

        As for civilized behaviors, these lessons are left to faith and social organizations to teach, which, like education are fighting against media-driven culture, which in turn, is driven by funding, most notably advertising revenues.

        Since pro-social behaviors aren't valued by larger culture as much as, say, owning the best say sports gear or latest purse style, advertisers are not inspired to promote them.
        There are economically successful exceptions, though.

        And there are promising murmurs in education. Two I've written about:

        Still, I note in my consulting work which addresses these themes, there is relative reluctance to prioritize these issues with sustained programming in many US organizations.

        Which leaves big picture concerns, children are provided few skills for cooperation that they can take into adulthood. So higher down-the-line costs are likely. Addressing problems that stem from relational and cultural disrespect will take more from civic resources. More problems and conflicts will require more of public safety and judicial systems. And strap communities and the people who live in them, both emotionally and economically.

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      Aug 4 2011: Andrea: "For single parents or others whose parenting job is compounded by circumstances, culture becomes an even bigger factor. Children's development, as it does in other parts of the world, must be shared with community."

      You are speaking to the heart of the issue, Our (US) society tends to marginalize education, parenting and the overall cultivation of our youth by compartmentalizing it to be the responbsibility of a few, when in fact it is the responsibility of all. The African proverb, "It takes a village" is NOT a cliche!!!!!. When we as a society come to realize this (again) the pendulum will swing...
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      Aug 4 2011: Btw, I like the very much! You are doing good things...
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    Aug 3 2011: I believe decency is taught. And it is largely based on the persons background whether they even think to consider another persons feelings even in the small things. I have always held doors open for anyone, doesn't matter the race, size, or anything to me. If someone is at least 15 feet away from me it is an automatic reflex to hold doors open. To help elderly carry groceries. These things are just automatic in my mind. But I attribute this to the way my mother raised me. She did these things automatically as did her mother. She taught, and gave examples everyday about being a decent and fair human being. And it became the same way for me. I have experienced people actually disliking this decency sometimes as well. I went to help an elderly lady carry a large plant. And she snapped "I am perfectly capable of carrying this." When in fact she was visibly struggling a great deal. But this never stopped me from equally being decent and fair to every human being. I get smiles sometimes. And I get very mean looks sometimes. But it's an automatic reflex to some. And an untaught, unnecessary thing to others. It all boils down to how you were brought up in most cases. There are different factors of course. Thank you for bringing this subject up though. It rises questions that there should be answers to. But sometimes, people just ignore the world around them. And think only for their well-being.

    - Jamie
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      Aug 4 2011: Jamie - Don't be discouraged from practicing decency!!! It benefits you, too.

      As for the elderly woman who rebuffed your kindness, perhaps you need to "fine tune" your practice of decency in this case. Elderly people must sometimes battle the perception that they are frail, weak and largely incapable of performing simple physical and mental tasks. My father is one of them. He is fiercely independent and his self-image depends on his being that way!! So what I do now is to be careful about how I phrase things to him (and to others who are elderly as well, being carefull not to inadvertently offend them).

      Still, it would serve the elderly well if they, too, practiced a little decency and realized that people like you have nothing but good intentions. Bravo!
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        Aug 4 2011: Thanks Jim! I haven't let it discourage me. I have only had things like that happen a couple times. I have been a little more cautious since that incident. I make sure that I clearly ask if they need help or not. So that I for sure get an answer back. And I've noticed that making a difference in responses. But I'll continue practicing public decency because I believe it to be a very important thing. :D

        - Jamie
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    Aug 4 2011: Alexandra, decency to me is like the indicator of humility. Humility is truth, the truth that every single human in this planet is precious, worthy and important.
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    Aug 3 2011: Thank you Jamie! I think Mark, that perhaps you expect too little from people... while I understand that historically there were those highly educated in etiquette but had little humanity, it does not mean that we should accept rude and dismissive behaviour as the norm. I personally think it has nothing to do with etiquette and everything to do with respect. When we have no respect for eachother we have no need to use common decency. And that is exactly the problem with today, if you are not taught to respect yourself, why would you respect others?
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      Aug 3 2011: I'm certainly no expert, so you may very well be correct. But this is why I'm suspicious of the whole idea:

      1. You've stated that with the exception of the the wealthy, the majority of the citizens don't maintain levels of decency. "The majority of citizens" is a pretty big group to make that kind of judgement about. Are you sure? How do you know? Can you cite a study? Are you sure you're not making the mistake of extrapolating generalizations from your own anecdotal experience?

      2. You are using normative social cues to infer interior states: someone doesn't say please or thank you, therefor they don't have common decency. The mistake here is easier to see in hindsight. Go back 150 years and think about a woman who doesn't curtsey in the proper situations. I suspect the general consensus would have been that she is impolite and lacking respect for others. But from today's perspective there are other, equally plausible explanations: she wasn't brought up with these social norms, but still has decency and respect, she's making a statement about feminism, but still has decency and respect, etc.

      3. There are certainly rude people in the world, but of all the ways to determine if someone really intends to be disrespectful or hurtful, I think how well they conform to rules of etiquette is one of the least reliable ways to predict it. Go visit a polo club and you'll see impeccably dressed and unbelievably polite people, but I would bet money that the average amount of decency in the room is the same as the general population.

      I've often thought the whole idea of manners was a sort of code to distinguish people of your class and social standing. You can't tell just by looking at someone if they are wealthy or if you should show them deference, but once they eat with the wrong fork or drink from the wrong glass you know. It's a subtle way of enforcing class status without having to really know anything about another person.
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    Aug 16 2011: For some it is a matter of not having been taught basic etiquette, and for others the issue seems to be deeper.

    Giving way on the sidewalk or letting someone get in line before you at the checkout requires that (a) your sense of honour is based on the act of giving not taking, and/or (b) you have a sense of security that there is 'more, later' (i.e. there will be enough for me when I get there).

    My favourite (and that is the sarcastic use) are those who preach Law of Attraction and abundant living and clearly don't live it on a day-to-day basis. I also loathe those "People for Good" signs. The unfortunate reality is that the people who need to be taught the message will really only respond to the opposite tactic: informing them that they are being judged and that those who are judging aren't going to tell them.

    If I can manage not to say anything when someone licks their knife, I think I can manage to bite my tongue through pretty much any display. I have a friend who does that and it's a special challenge let me tell you, to just let it go. "I am not responsible for this, I am not his mother," has become my dinner mantra when out with people who haven't had the benefit of polish. There are extenuating circumstances in this one instance that warrants overlooking it, but there is no way I would date someone who couldn't hold their fork and have to bite my tongue at every meal. I don't care if that makes me a bad person and a snob. It's not going to happen.
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    Aug 4 2011: Andrea, agreed, I am sure there are rude wealthy people, however, fortunately I have yet to experience them. I think your example of the football stadium is very sad and the question is, why is it allowed? Why is it so acceptable to be so ignorant? I think to some extent people over complicate situations like this when really it's a simple solution. It infuriates me that society no longer cares about their neighbor, but cares more about their right to say and be what they want no matter how detrimental it is to society. It;s ok to feed your kids junk until they have diabetes, it's ok to be insulting and discriminate. Until we change that frame of mind, this attitude will cultivate and spread even further into our homes and it's not acceptable. At some point someone has to say "It's not ok" but we'd rather discuss it to death, argue and debate until we admit we're to fearful to make a change. Let's speak out about it and not be fearful of repercussions, we all seem to have opinions but what are we doing about it? Parents need to be educated and children need the support, so what can we do to make that happen?
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      Aug 16 2011: Alexandra,

      Leaders of our country, few who are poor, verbally assault one another like children. Wall Street mavens bilk investors of life savings (Bernie Madoff comes to mind). Banks and mortgage companies manipulate homeowners. Millionaire athletes act like unruly teens. Executives drive through neighborhoods without so much as waving at the children they pass by.

      These are the acts of a society, where as you say, neighbors no longer care about neighbors.

      Educating parents and children is far from enough. When the majority of adults begin acting with dignity, including by patiently engaging rude children with encouragements to live up to their potentials, is when decency will be the norm, not the exception.

      The reason the wealthy children I wrote of were allowed to act rude has little to do with their education. These are children taught in the good schools, synagogues, churches and elsewhere to use manners. It has everything to do with modeling.

      All around them adults -- not only their parents -- are acting with ignorance and quite undignified behaviors. Including, in this particular community, by suing the school district, which due to education cuts wanted to redraw its boundaries. The new borders would have included lower income and ethnic families, who wealthy parents hired lawyers to keep out. One can imagine this doesn't help inculcate politeness on either side.

      To answer your Q, speaking about and changing frames of mind is only the first step. Modeling is more critical. Telling rarely works. Engaging and encouraging by showing dignity, reasonable, age-appropriate tolerance and empathy. asking for help and showing gratitude, and seeking to understand conditions that undermine attitudes are powerful methods for pro-social teaching.

      Insight into positive repercussions is more productive than finger-pointing. A rich person who recently embodied this is Warren Buffet, who called on the US Congress to tax the rich to support society.

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    Aug 4 2011: I strongly agree with you Alexandra.We should always be polite no matter what our social status are.I'm not sure about the situation in the U.S but my suggestion would be : We should adopt a culture that teaches us to be polite to everyone regardless of our social standing.Start with education.Teach kids about manners when communicating with others.Plus, I suggest that we should learn from the Japanese people (they are so polite! ).
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    Aug 4 2011: Very interesting Mark, I definitely think you have hit on a couple of points, perhaps my generalization in saying majority was misplaced though I couldn't be positive. I know many people who have very little but are still very respectful, no they have no ettiquette but they are generous to a fault and care about their neighbors. They are strict with their children but never lack in love, all the kids I know are very polite and respectful, it is not about wealth but about how children are raised, once again I think it is all about respect,. Whether you have money or not should not matter on how you raise your children to respect others. It should be human nature, after all, isn't that what separates us from the animals?
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    Aug 3 2011: I was just thinking about this the other day when a woman introduced herself to me and (if you can believe it) offered her hand for me to shake. What ever happened to the time when women politely bowed? Don't they teach girls anything anymore? Also, I can't remember the last time someone tipped their hat for me.

    Of course, I'm being a little flippant, but I think we should expect norms of etiquette to change with time and culture. We should also separate manners from real decency. Historically, people showed the most impeccable manners even while showing no common decency or humanity. By conforming to social standards they gave the impression of being civilized while really acting like brutes.

    I agree with your larger point that we have perhaps become too narcissistic and tend to forget we share this space with others, but I would be careful of using someone's lack of etiquette knowledge as a leading indicator of their decency.
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    Aug 1 2011: I quite agree with you Amy, but I must say how nice it is to know you are there:)