Newsflash: If you aren’t trying to be polite, chances are people find you rude.
But who defines polite? The dinner table, once a school of social-emotional health, where many children learned to identify and express emotions and feel empathy,(1) has been usurped by overworked parents, over-scheduled children and fast food.
In addition to the loss of a shared mealtime, over the last three decades researchers have observed a rise in narcissism. College students are reporting an increasingly inflated self-esteem and a growing indifference to other human beings.(2)
“The characteristic that perhaps most distinguishes non-narcissists from narcissists is empathy,” wrote research professor Peter Gray, PhD.
Empathy is the essence of manners — of etiquette. Do you have empathy for those in your company, the desire to make others comfortable and to grease the wheels of social interaction?
Polite behavior requires the self-awareness to know how one’s own behavior is affecting others, for better or worse. Manspreading on the subway, the near extinction of thank-you notes, and the indiscriminate use of cell phones indicate a plague of self-preoccupation.
“Every action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present,” wrote George Washington in “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.”(3)
Signs of respect change with the times, but the need for them does not. Should a man still stand when a woman enters a room? Should a woman leave a calling card when visiting?
The specifics of showing respect evolve, but the social imperative to make others feel comfortable and acknowledged does not.
One of my daughter’s friends comes by now and then in order, apparently, to be glued to her cellphone somewhere other than in her own house. At the kitchen table last week, I mentioned to the girls that I was starting a series on manners for work.
Said friend glanced up from her phone, smiled, and glanced back down. Tap-tap-tap-send.
Now, I don’t think the young lady was intentionally rude.