THE BLOG

Forget Etiquette. What Happened To Modern Manners?

12/30/2011 09:38 am ET | Updated Feb 29, 2012

Rudeness and bad manners - and books about them - are on the rise. Technology clearly has much to do with this. Even "smart" technology has made many of us seem "less smart." (That's a polite way of putting it.) It's certainly made people more distracted and self-centered, both of which breed bad manners.

Invading people's personal spaces by talking loudly on cellphones, answering cell phones or texting during a meal, and being an anonymous Internet bully are just a few familiar examples of manners gone awry.

But technology isn't the only thing contributing to bad form. A slew of cultural changes have created a climate that seems to breed bad manners. NRP and Vanity Fair contributor Henry Alford's book "Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners," is the most recent addition to a canon that began with Emily Post (albeit, in far more genteel times). Alford's humorous musings wander through truly modern turf, from email, atheist and "churchy statements," and Transgendered coming-out, to buttocks-baring jeans, Facebook, sex tentacles, and other things Emily Post didn't have to worry about.

Ditto for syndicated columnist and "Advice Goddess" Amy Alkon. Alkon is the author of "I See Rude People: One woman's battle to beat some manners into impolite society." She's on a crusade to live out the subtitle of that book. "I don't like regulations," she told Reason TV. "I like to shame people into behaving better."

There's a lot of shaming to do. Alkon has a long list of things and places on her blog where bad behavior abounds, from sidewalks, parking lots, traffic snarls, and restaurants, to toilets, airports, dating environments, family gatherings, and the workplace (to name but a few).

"What people don't know, and what's come out in a few studies in the past few years," wrote Alkon in an email, "is that even a quiet cell phone conversation is disturbing to people around you. That's because the brain pays attention to a one-sided conversation in a way it does not to a two-sided one. The theory is that it tries to fill in the other side of the conversation. If you must make an emergency phone call indoors, we'll try to understand. But, there's no reason to carry on long, inane conversations in public places - no reason except self-centered, Me! Me! Me! Generation rudeness."

True, true true. It's also important to note that there's a difference between etiquette and good manners or good behavior. Etiquette is connected to rules and protocol, which vary in different countries and can be learned - hence all of our how-to etiquette books and blogs. But knowing or respecting etiquette doesn't necessarily make you a nice person, and niceness is the bedrock of empathy and compassion - two human traits that also seem a bit strained these days. How do people treat their hired help? Do they show kindness to people in less advantageous situations? Do they have generosity of spirit? If someone has perfect etiquette but is essentially mean-spirited, the latter cancels out the former. Moral contradictions, in other words, are not nice.

Learning compassion and empathy is a lot harder than picking up a book about how to write the perfect party invite, when/if it's okay to regift, or who you can sensibly bring along to a wedding. And getting people to improve their manners is an uphill battle in a culture like ours which is largely public and confessional (two things that are considered rude in other countries, like France and Japan), and where public humiliation has become something of a spectator sport. Is Simon Cowell rude or bad-mannered, or is he just entertaining us? Hard to know, but he's riveting to watch, if not in an excruciating sort of way.

The same goes for Kim Kardashian, who recently got top billing as the Most Ill-Mannered Person of the Year. (Kate Middleton, no surprise, topped the charts as the Best-Mannered Person of the Year.) Kardashian is a lot like Paris Hilton - famous for being famous. But the thing is, we made her famous, which is a bit hypocritical. And hypocrisy, when you think about it, is ill-mannered, too.