“Good manners will open doors that the best education cannot.” – Clarence Thomas, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court  of the United States

It hasn’t been that long ago that good manners and etiquette were co-equal with other topics in training up young people to be successful adults. However, such learned virtues have been ignored in some quarters in recent decades, resulting in growing numbers of adults – and now, their children – not learning basic principles of respecting others – and, as a result, not respecting themselves.

There are many reasons why the art of considering the feelings of other people and being the kind of person that others will like has fallen to the wayside in our high technology, “me-and-only-me” culture.  The Army and Navy Academy’s “Manners for the Gentleman Warrior,” a pocket-size guide for the boarding school’s middle- and high-school cadets, does as good a job analyzing the trend as any source. A portion of that analysis that follows is worth noting:

“How Americans behave today is influenced by how they behaved in the Liberated Generation of the 1960s, the Me Generation of the 1980s, and the Connected Generation that beeps all around us now. The corrosive effects of disregard for tradition, absorption in personal fulfillment, and a chronic attachment to cellular devices have almost erased old-fashioned civility. The erosion of traditional rules of acceptable behavior has left people without clear guidance on how to act, and it is easy for them to be rude without knowing it…”   

In addition to describing the need for good manners and etiquette, the Academy’s guidebook, used to train cadets in good manners, covers several etiquette topics, including the important of gentlemanly civility, appropriate dress, the essentials of polite conversation, paying attention properly, proper ways to introduce people, how to interview for a job, replying to invitations and gifts, table manners, escorting and proper treatment of ladies, earning respect, and avoiding substance abuse.

Past blogs have discussed the changing priorities of the two most recent generations of Americans; the Millennials born between 1981 and 1995 and the 74-million “iGen-ers” who were born in the 1995-2012 timeframe.  The most evident trait these two social cohorts share is a heavy reliance on e-mails, texting, and other impersonal modes of communications that don’t require in-person interactions with others.  One doesn’t have to be all that polite, know what to wear or which fork to use when holed up with a cell phone or computer in a bedroom or home office.

That’s not to say, however, that cell phones and computers are the sole reasons why many in our society have no clue, much less any interest, in what good manners are and the etiquette – the form and structure – under which good manners are applied.  Much of the blame can be shared by their adult mentors – their parents, teachers, and other adult role models – who haven’t passed along what earlier generations taught them.

In recent decades, young people have begun asking questions not asked before, including, “What’s the big deal about good manners?” Or to frame it another way: “What’s in it for me to sit up straight, say please and thank you, shake hands, and keep my mouth closed while chewing food?”

Obviously, the scope of manners reaches far beyond those specific questions, but they are central to the point of why there needs to be an increased emphasis on teaching manners and etiquette. In a 2011 Child Development Institute blog, retired Huntington Beach sixth-grade teacher Pam Myers wrote that “having good manners meets a social expectation – kids are expected to have good manners and their parents earn more respect when do.” Yet another thing she asked her readers to consider “the role good manners play in your children’s future.”

Elaine Swann, a lifestyle, and etiquette expert who operates the Carlsbad-based Swann School of Protocol, listed respect, honesty, and consideration as etiquette’s core values in a recent profile in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“Etiquette matters because it truly is a part of our everyday lives,” Swann said. “It is not so much about how you use your fork and knife at the table, but it’s more about putting others at ease… Image is everything and how you present yourself, not only physically, but behaviorally, is incredibly important. You only get to make one first impression.”

Johns Hopkins University Professor Dr. Pier Forni who co-founded the university’s Civility Project in 1997 defines the rules of good manners as “the traffic lights of human interaction. They make it so we don’t crash into one another in everyday behavior.”

Good manners have an impact on obtaining and keeping a job, according to an “Importance of Good Manners and Etiquettes” blog by jobcluster.com.

“Good manners show the best you have to offer and encourage others to be their best,” the blog noted as the preface for a list of several good-mannered traits:

The blog then lists basic examples of good manners, including the following:

  • Be thoughtful
  • Be cheerful
  • Be generous
  • Be cooperative
  • Be helpful
  • Don’t be bossy
  • Don’t put people down or say rude things
  • Respect other’s privacy
  • Take care of personal property

Adding to that list are several examples of how to implement good manners, offered up by jobcluster.com, an online resource for job seekers:

  • Choose your words wisely and don’t rush to comment about things you don’t know much about;
  • Think things out before you speak; don’t start sentences with “ums’ and “ers;”
  • Don’t speak loudly; this can be seen as overbearing and rude and people will see you as a big mouth;
  • Speak with respect to and of others by avoiding negative remarks that may insult somebody else;
  • Always respect older people and listen to them and learn. This applies to all elders, not just parents or grandparents;
  • Using the terms “thank you” and “you are welcome” shows others you have good manners. People who lack manners don’t use these terms;
  • Do not swear or use profane or curse words. People who do so are seen as having no self- control or respect for others, including themselves;
  • Speak highly of your parent even if there are things about them you do not like. If you cannot do so, say nothing about them. It is negative and rude to wash dirty family laundry in public; and,
  • Hold doors open for anyone following you closely, even if that person is the same gender. There are no strict gender rules today and doing so is a sign of good manners.

The teaching of good manners to children itself is an exercise in proper etiquette.  Dr. Forni’s colleague at Johns Hopkins, pediatrician Dr. Berry Brazelton said, “We are in a hurry, and most families are stressed – overbooked, overburdened, constantly rushing from one place to another – school, work, and all the “extras” – sports, dance, music, religious school. How can families possibly add one more thing to their “to do lists?  It’s easier than you think”

Brazelton offers several principles parents need to observe in approaching the teaching of manners to their children:

  • Learning manners begins at home. Just like most important life lessons, children learn best by example, by observing and listening to the adults in their lives. You don’t need a copy of the latest Emily Post book to teach this, but you do need to mind your own manners.
  • Expect respect. The root of good manners is respect for another person.
  • Start young. Even two-year-olds can get into the habit of saying, “please” and “thank you.”
  • Model good manners. Let your child hear you say polite words and see you demonstrating for others during your daily interactions. Simple exchanges such as thanking the cashier when given your change at a supermarket or leaving your table clean at a self-serve restaurant teaches children that manners count in their family.
  • Manners are a two-way street. Treat your child with the same politeness you do an adult. Let them experience the good feelings of receiving respect and appreciation.
  • Practice doesn’t make perfect. Expect manners meltdowns. There will be times when even the politest child forgets his or her manners, or even worse is downright rude. Correct them privately and calmly, but firmly. Turn it into a learning experience.

Good manners are simply respect and consideration for others or being aware of the need of others. Practicing and teaching good manners to the next generation makes for a more pleasant life, today and tomorrow. Something badly needed by all of us.