People Aren’t Polite Any More
ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN
Okay, so raising hats is out of date and "Hi" has replaced the courtly bow. But why trample on your neighbor's toes or splash him with mud from your tires? Simple courtesy costs nothing and makes life more pleasant all round
WHETHER it’s because they’re wiser, ruder or just more numerous, people today aren’t as polite as they used to be. Until World War I any man who didn’t eat with his fingers observed such basic rules as removing his hat when he spoke to a woman, seeing that she got a seat on a streetcar and generally minding his P’s and Q’s in her presence. Today he flips a hand at his hat as if he were swatting flies, frequently talks to a woman around a cigar, lets his speech go uncensored; and when he does offer a woman his seat, does it only after sizing her up for heft, height and back muscle, making certain she is weaker and more tired than he is. At that he risks being peered at by the other sitting males as if he’d double-crossed them. Finer points of etiquette, like standing when a woman enters a room, are carried out selfconsciously, if at all, and the performer looked upon as if he curled his hair.
The reaction of most men toward these changes is “So what?” and they’re roughly right. Fashions in etiquette come and go. Two hundred years ago men kissed women’s hands and bowed as if they were looking for cheroot butts. These are artificial forms and, as such, have no particular significance. Even Vogue’s “Book of Etiquette” now permits a man to let a woman light her own cigarette if she’s too far away, to smoke a pipe or cigar in her presence in an automobile, let her leave the car first if traffic is too heavy on the driver’s side.
The question I’m interested in is—has there been any change in basic courtesy? Courtesy means consideration for others. It is the oil that helps the wheels of a complex community mesh quietly and pull together. Formality is just a flashy indicator.
It would be nice to report that from this broader point of view we are holding our own. Fact is, though, that we are even worse than we are on the hat-raising level. Our consideration for others is probably at its lowest point in history.
The manager of the dress department in a Toronto department store told me: “On a busy day we have three or four girls doing nothing but picking up dresses that women have thrown on the floor after looking at them.”
The manager of the shoe department said, “The day after we’d installed an expensive new broadloom it was covered with burns. There were ash
trays all over the place, hut the customers just toss their cigarettes down and step on them.”
We talk and chew popcorn through movies and fumble between rows of seats, knocking coats, hats and handbags to the floor instead of excusing ourselves and giving the seated people a chance to make way for us. Sometimes we murmur apologies, but, in effect, we are only apologizing for getting somewhere fast at someone else’s inconvenience, which we keep right on doing.
Some people, when they get the wrong telephone number, hang up without a word. We stand at the exit door of streetcars to be handy for our stop and make everyone struggle past us. We blow smoke in each other’s faces at restaurant tables, and if the other guy doesn’t like it he can move.
The embittered hostess in one of Child’s restaurants told me: “A customer will sit down at an empty table before we begin to fill up, then, when I try to put someone else in the empty chair, claim to be waiting for a friend. The chair will be vacant while people are lining up at the front and there is nothing I can do about it.”
People barge past her when she is trying to see that everyone gets seated in turn. Then, finding there are no tables, they stand around getting in the way of the waitresses.
“Another trick that burns me,” she added, “is their habit of picking a table by themselves when Pm already leading them to one. I’ll walk all the way to the back of the restaurant and turn around to see them sitting at the front as if I didn’t exist.”
To the motorist, and anyone who has to cope with today’s traffic, discourtesy has practically become a way of life. There was nothing unreasonable about the little boy who, asked what he was looking for after a drive with his father, said, “All the bastards Daddy saw.” The average motorist works himself into a lather shoving other motorists out of line, blocking them off, swearing at them, glaring at them, and making pedestrians jump with his horn. He’ll hold cars out of line with such violent determination that he runs the risk of ramming the car ahead, jam up against other parked cars so that they can’t get out, outjockey other cars on turns, straddle white lines, lean on his horn and shave by inches any pedestrian caught by the lights, splash
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People Aren't Polite Any More
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them with mud and talk to himself in the rear-vision mirror.
Pedestrians are just as thoughtless. Jaywalking, which means putting all the responsibility and inconvenience on the motorist, has become so bad that by-laws have been created to cope with it. (Only suckers, of course, obey the by-laws unless a cop is looking.)
Streetcar motormen are probably even worse than the motorists. In a traffic tieup they’ll hammer the bell at the motorist in front of them, regardless of whether he can move or not.
A traffic cop at a busy intersection put it bluntly: “I often stand there and wonder: ‘What do motormen expect drivers to do? Get out and carry the car on their back?’ ”
He told me that women drivers trying to park in a big indoor garage on his beat will pull up beside the “Sorry, Garage Full” sign and wait there half on the street in hopes of someone leaving, and tying up traffic for a block and a half until he moves them.
There are some reasons for our increasing rudeness. With the growth of our cities we’ve passed the time when each of us was part of a social mit, as we were when we lived in small ¡.owns and villages. The sense of belonging,” a sense of responsibility to the group, is becoming as quaint as a mustache cup. Most of us belong only to our families.
The psychological gulf between individuals is widening; on the other hand, we rub shoulders more often and more irritatingly with one another than our forefathers did. We move almost entirely among strangers, but strangers packed into a crowded spot. We frequently don’t know the name of the person in the next apartment, or in the house two doors down the street, but we have all we can do to keep our elbow out of his soup at a downtown lunch counter.
Ulcers in the Cold War
Fifty years ago, even in the cities, there were more people with a rural background than there are today. Small - town life can’t help but be courteous because everybody knows everybody else. In a small town a person who looks as if he is trying to get ahead of you in a lineup turns out to be Charlie So-and-So who runs the fishing-tackle shop and who is coming over Saturday night for bridge. But in a place like Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton or Winnipeg, he’s just a wise guy who thinks he’s getting away with something.
Years ago, lining up for theatres, sales and streetcars was comparatively unknown. A group of half a dozen people could behave courteously and still not lose too much time. Today being polite can mean a half-hour wait for a streetcar or an hour-and-a-half wait outside a movie. We get into the habit of fighting all the way. The queue was invented to keep us from trampling one another to death. Without it we revert to the law of the jungle.
A streetcar conductor told me that a handful of passengers getting on an empty car at the end of the line will shove one another as if their lives depended on it. He has seen women shoved into the car, when there was no reason for shoving, with such velocity that they have fallen flat on their faces.
The manager of a Toronto hotel reports that many people, the moment they get to their rooms, pick up the
phone and raise blue murder with at least three people on the staff, on the theory that this is the only way to be sure of getting fast service.
From this cynical viewpoint consideration for others has lost its point There’s nothing in it for you. The main object seems to be to get there first, and, often, to keep anyone else from getting there at all.
So many of us commute back and forth with our ulcers in a cold war with life’s fellow travelers, batting one another through revolving doors, chiseling our way ahead in lineups, eyeing one another with faint hostility, taking the attitude “Okay, so I bumped into him. Why worry about apologies. I’ll never see the jerk again.” Perhaps as a sop to our consciences we vote to popularity songs with lyrics like “What a wonderful word, hello,” and “Dear hearts and gentle people who live and love in my home town.”
Flowers Have Their Thorns
Thirty years ago a man’s manners toward a woman were, and technically still are, based on the assumption that woman is a delicate sensitive creature, easily tired, who must be feted, amused and protected. It’s hard to keep up the illusion. Today women ski, wrestle, play hockey and softball, operate riveting and spot-welding machines, drive taxis and trucks, hold executive positions and frequently give men a lot of lip when they get enough authority.
In our grandmother’s day a woman was taught that a lady remembered her deportment at all times. A woman today in a crowd, competing for anything from walking room to bargains, gives the impression of being about as delicate and sensitive as a six-ply tire, shoving, hauling, pushing, crushing and using her handbag, parcels, bosom or anything else that comes in handy. A woman will stand at the cash counter in a restaurant, a post-office wicket or a teller’s cage holding up the whole line until she reorganizes the entire contents of her purse and does everything but put her hair up in curlers.
A woman waiting for a place at a crowded lunch counter will often peer at every plate, note who has reached ice cream and coffee, stand so close behind the customer’s back that she is breathing down his neck, and watch the progress of every bite.
“It’s getting so bad,” Bill Sparks, a counterman in a Montreal quick-lunch spot, says, “that it even gets on my nerves. One babe, a few days ago, parked so close behind a little guy that she was almost helping him swallow his food, then started working on me because I wasn’t bringing his dessert fast enough!”
Men who have been victims of this sort of thing and who have been batted around by women in downtown crowds find it difficult to regard them as delicate flowers. They are more likely to figure: “Why should a guy who has been standing at a lathe from 8 to 5 have to get up to give his seat to some woman who comes downtown to shop at 11 o’clock?”
But the men throw their weight around in a way that’s not as noticeable but just as bad—sometimes worse. A woman’s rudeness in a crowd is a lusty free-for-all of blocking, body-checking and fast footwork. But a man will use his real or simulated prestige, a booming voice, an impressive manner and a homburg hat, and often a bit of loose change, to make the hostess or headwaiter think ho is at least the mayor of the city and cruise past the waiting line like a visiting maharaja.
Men are inclined to expect, wherever they are, all the comforts they enjoy at home and get huffy if anyone objects.
A man in a restaurant will spread his newspaper out as if he were propping it against the marmalade jar at home. He often likes his half of a streetcar seat in the middle and likes another three feet or so of elbow room to read his paper.
One of the worst casualties of modern life is respect for our elders. Deference to age has its roots deep in the history of civilization; it was believed that the older a man grew the wiser he became. But today, with the universal use of machines, the elders’ skills are not as useful or important. Some persons are too old at 60 or 55 or even 50, and many healthy, useful men and women who are capable and willing to work are being retired by the pension schemes of corporations who place more and more importance on youth. Oldsters no longer have a sure place in modern society. In many homes today you see the tragedy of the grandfather or grandmother being relegated to a back bedroom, a rather tedious responsibility to the family group.
An outcome of this is the lack of respect for age that we see particularly among teen-agers. “Sir,” as a term of address for a senior man, has almost been dropped. Girls no longer, as a general rule, stand when an older woman enters a room. But more important is the lack of attentiveness and respect toward older people in general tone of voice and behavior.
One woman of 55 told me: “Today, when I go downtown, youngermen and women barge through doorways ahead of me, squeeze ahead of me in lineups. When I meet them socially, both young men and young women, instead of waiting to be addressed first, as I was taught to do in the presence of an older person, talk to me as if we were old chums. When I go visiting, children interrupt my conversation, speak to me in the same tone that they use with one another, and make no apologies for bombarding me with toy airplanes, crawling over me to retrieve darts, and barking my shins with doll carriages.
“I visited a friend of mine a few weeks ago who has three children—two little boys and a girl. When I arrived they were on the living-room floor playing with a train. Their mother called them and introduced me. One boy looked up, said nothing, went on playing. The other little boy and the girl both gave me an unenthusiastic “Hi.” If I’d ever said “Hi,” or anything like it, when I was introduced to an adult my mother or my father would have boxed the back of my head, company or no company. Yet the mother beamed at them as if it were rather cute and started right in talking about how well they were doing in school.”
The increased tempo and pressure of modern business have made our manners worse. Even if we felt like being polite most of us are too busy answering phones and buzzers and getting through routine jobs, in which we have no real interest, to take the time. The telephone has put interruptions, pointless questions and irritating verbal horseplay on a coast-to-coast hookup. A man 15 miles away can bring us to the
phone to ask if we have enough insurance while we are in the middle of a conference, a column of figures or a dinner with the family. The phone is certainly a mixed blessing.
Selling and buying are the reverse sides of business manners. A salesman scenting a fat order is on his best behavior; the buyer tends to be wary, brusque and faintly hostile. The war proved in a way no one will ever forget how much modern sales courtesy depends on expedience. Salespeople became indifferent, rude and insulting when commodities got scarce and jobs plentiful. The natural good manners of employees are so unreliable now that big stores provide elaborate courses on how to be friendly, how to call women “Madame,” men “Sir,” and how to say “Please,” “Thank you” and “I’m sorry.” One store went so far as to have a harp strum over an amplifying system to remind its salesclerks to smile.
While I was working on this article I called at a well-known accident insurance company to see the claims manager. A girl in the office, acting as his secretary, told me, “He’s very busy. I don’t think he’ll see you.” She didn’t know who I was or what I wanted. For all she or the claims manager knew I could have dropped in to buy the company.
I asked her why she was so sure he wouldn’t see me.
“Well—because he has men like you coming in all day long.”
When I asked her what she meant men like me, she said with evident distaste, “Salesmen.”
I got sore and told her to tell the claims manager I wanted to see him anyway. She went to his office, spoke to him, came back and announced with relish, “He’s too busy. He can’t see you.”
That company, incidentally, has a public relations officer as busy as a cab driver on New Year’s Eve writing house-organ articles, many of which liken the company to a solid old folksy friend of the family.
We are living in a rude world. But one of the definitions given by Webster for “rude” is: “Rugged, sturdy, vigorous.” Much of our rudeness has a healthy origin. We are living in a more realistic world. We have no patience with artificiality. We no longer pretend that women are delicate fainting ornaments in public then chain them to a scrubboard in private. Diplomats no longer continue to address one another in courtly terms while the guns are being brought into action.
We have discarded a good deal of hypocrisy. But we have thrown the baby out with the bath. There is great power in normal courtesy. To treat a person respectfully, to speak to him respectfully, tend to engender respect. It was a better world, a more friendly world, a more peaceable world, a world of fewer divorces, happier homes and happier families when people said “How do you do?” instead of “How’re yuh?” called their elders “Sir” and “Ma’am, ’ ’ and said “I beg your pardon, instead of “Drop dead.” ★