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The Big Question

Q: What Happened to Our Manners?

P. M. Forni, professor of Italian in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, is the author of Choosing Civility: The 25 Rules of Considerate Conduct (New York, St. Martin's Press, 2002).
Photo by Jim Burger
A: We do have our manners. What we have lost are the manners of past generations. That we have manners, however, does not mean we ought to be perfectly happy with the manners we have.

In fact, many Americans think that civility and manners are in decline, that this decline has increased in the past several years, and that there is a causal connection between incivility and violence.

Does reality match the perception of a decline? Yes and no. There is little doubt that we are losing established forms of deference and respect. On the other hand, new forms of respect take the place of those becoming obsolete. A pregnant woman may not easily find a youngster willing to give her his seat on a bus. But the number of men willing to treat the same woman as an intellectual peer on the job is higher today than it was yesterday.

This does not mean that we should ignore the coarsening of social interaction that we have been witnessing in recent years. Our manners inevitably suffer when:

1. We are poorly trained in self-restraint.

2. We are used to seeing others as means to the satisfaction of our desires rather than ends in themselves.

3. We are overly concerned about financial gain and professional achievement.

4. We are constantly besieged by stress and fatigue.

5. We are surrounded by strangers who will remain strangers.

When some or all of these factors are at work, it becomes difficult to be considerate — and consideration is the ethical requirement of manners that are really good.

A lapse of manners I particularly mind? Anything having to do with unnecessary and unwanted noise. Quiet is an endangered resource.

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