My mother used to say that good manners were simply the outward expression of inner respect -- or words to that effect. If so, there is precious little respect around today, what with candidates bashing each other in negative campaign ads and calling each other names, politics has become a blood sport. Even everyday disputes often end in gunfire. Has civility become obsolete? Are we as a nation becoming less civilized? Miss Manners, who writes a syndicated column on etiquette (even the word "etiquette" sounds outdated) would probably know.
The French, who are not generally known for being coolheaded, may have a better handle on civility than we do. Case in point: I was awakened one night in a Paris hotel room by a loud bang followed by the angry shouts of two drivers whose cars had collided in the intersection just below my window. I watched as the men shrieked, shook their fists, and pointed to their wrecked vehicles. A minute later, each was pulling off pieces of the other's car and throwing them down on the pavement. Headlights, bumpers and windshield wipers were piling up all around. That continued for a few more minutes, while a bored gendarme looked on. When there was nothing left to tear off without a crowbar, one of the men said (loosely translated), "I could use a drink. What about you?" The other nodded, and they headed off together to the cafe on the corner.
Contrast that scene in Paris with one over here in which I inadvertently blocked traffic for perhaps half a minute in a busy intersection. A young man, headed in the opposite direction, blasted his horn at me. I put up my hands in a helpless gesture and smiled ruefully. When the light changed, he gunned the motor and raced past me, yelling obscenities out the window. His behavior was appalling, but it wasn't his fault. No one had taught him any better.
I grew up in a time when good manners were taught first at home and later in school. A gentleman stood when a lady entered the room, and tipped his hat on the street (and took it off in the house). A lady waited patiently for her companion to leap out of the driver's seat and open her car door. She wore hat and gloves to "the City," as San Francisco is called by everyone hereabouts. Try finding a well-dressed lady today, even in San Francisco. What was unthinkable a few decades ago is no longer the least bit shocking. As if that old song, "Anything Goes," had been written for this generation, women are wearing jeans to the Opera House.
While mourning the demise of civility and good manners, especially between men and women, I began looking for the root causes. Why don't gentlemen open the car door for us anymore? Why don't they stand up when we enter a room or hold our chairs when we sit down at a table? Let's face it, that sort of polite behavior went out about the same time as stockings with seams up the back.
I hate to say it, but it's probably our own fault. During the Women's Movement, back in the 1970s, we demanded equality with men -- and we got it. (That old saying, “Be careful what you wish for," comes to mind.) We resented being treated like poor, weak creatures who couldn't even open a car door, when in reality we could drive a truck or move a piano.
I know I'm on dangerous ground here. I can almost hear the angry protests of Feminists, saying that I have missed the point of their movement -- erroneously dubbed "Women's Lib" -- altogether. And maybe I have. I will admit that many of the rights we enjoy today were won during those times. But along with the rights came a decline in respect for us as women, and I think that's too bad.
My mother's advice, "Act like a lady and a gentleman will treat you like one," may not be relevant anymore. (I think most of them have forgotten how.) Frankly, I miss being treated like a lady. Now, on those rare occasions when it happens, I'm happy to have a gentleman open a door, or hold my chair for me. These days I consider it a compliment, not an insult.
But good manners are only a small part of the larger issue. I miss a certain level of civility among people in general -- the outward expression of inner respect for our fellow human beings. In that regard we seem to be regressing back to the Stone Age, and I wonder if we will ever become "civilized" again.
Miss Manners would probably know.