I have always thought that my upbringing was pretty much the same as everyone else’s. My parent’s taught my sister and I to say “please” and “thank you”, respect our elders, write thank you notes when we received a gift and a number of other behaviors that fell within the realm of common courtesy and good manners. These lessons reflected their belief that the adherence to recognized social conventions that governed our relationships with others was the foundation of a civil society. As I get older, I find myself becoming increasingly aware that these practical conventions seem to be fading away and are being replaced by a coarsening in our interactions driven by narcissism and an inviolate sense of self-entitlement.
I was reminded of my concerns on a recent family skiing vacation. On multiple occasions during the trip, my family was waiting in line to head down the slope together only to be cut off by another skier who didn’t feel like waiting behind us. On our flight home I asked a woman in the window seat if she would mind switching seats so that my kids could sit together. Judging by her reaction you might have thought I’d asked for a kidney. When I tried to explain to her that I would be giving her my aisle seat, she only became more insistent that “she always” takes a window seat—apparently she finds clouds quite fascinating—and I apologized for bothering her.
While I realize that the people who cut us off in line are probably the same folks who let the door shut in your face when you follow them into a building, and everyone does have a “right” to their desired airline seat, I wonder when this type of behavior became acceptable. Have we stopped teaching and observing the fundamental actions that used to be termed “good manners” or “acceptable behavior”, or are we simply too tired of fighting what appears to be a losing battle?
I went to a wedding recently and I wore a suit—and a tie. Naturally, as is all too common, there were folks there in jeans or slacks and a shirt. I’m sure they were quite comfortable. Unfortunately, the occasion wasn’t about them. At one time, my suit and tie were the required uniform for men at these occasions as they represented the guest’s respect for the bride and groom and the for the importance of the occasion itself. I don’t know when this changed but if we don’t honor the events like this in our lives, then I have to ask “what then is important?”
I wonder if we have become so afraid of violating some else’s “rights” that we have lost our voice in terms of propriety? Why else would we tolerate the clod next to us garbed in shorts, a t-shirt and a backwards ball cap when we sit down to eat in what my parent’s use to describe as a “nice restaurant”, or the women with the overinflated sense of self-importance talking on her cellphone while running on the elliptical machine next to us at 6 am? I struggle to pinpoint the time when we discarded simple consideration for others for living our lives in cocoons of self-absorption. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because it was obviously some time in the distant past.
I have no idea where this continued de-evolution from an accepted level of acceptable behavior will lead us, although I feel that it will make us poorer on the whole. The 18th century Anglican clergyman Laurence Sterne said that, “Respect for ourselves guides our morals, respect for others guides our manners”. In today’s society it appears that an over developed sense of the former has lead to the detriment of the latter.