by Elise Seyfried
“A man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.” — Goethe
My schedule is rather hectic these days, and so as I gulp my morning java, I only have time to peruse the highlights in The Philadelphia Inquirer. Of course, these highlights include my horoscope, comic strips and, most of all, the advice column. I am particularly addicted to the latter, a never-ending parade of gaffes and faux pas followed by crisp, common-sense responses.
• Question: “My neighbor drops off her six kids every morning for me to watch before school, even when they’re sick. She never thanks me or offers to pay. Should I say something?”
• Answer: “Are you kidding?”
What’s up, people? We humans seem to be operating with a serious manner deficit these days. We interrupt; we cut each other off in traffic; we push and shove to get our way. Debates have devolved into screaming matches.
And the disrespect we have for one another carries over to disrespect for the environment, from cigarette butts flipped out of car windows to paper cups and sandwich wrappers thrown on the grass in the park.
My mom was my standard bearer for trying to do and say the right thing. She used to write thank you notes to people to thank them for sending her thank you notes; I’m dead serious. No crime in our house was more egregious than hurting each other’s feelings. Were she here today, she would be taking just about everyone to task.
I can hear Joanie now: No, politicians on both sides of the aisle, it is actually not all right to make up horrific lies about each other to win elections. Hey, Charlie Cell Phone, it is extremely rude to kill people on the Blue Route because you can’t wait 10 minutes to make that business call. Um, excuse me, ma’am, but 27 cans of creamed corn do not count as one item in the express lane.
When our kids were little, we tried to take a page from the Grandma Joanie book, and insisted on decent treatment for ourselves and those around us. Even at a young age, the children noticed the friends who were, and were not, similarly encouraged. We still laugh about a friend of our son Sheridan’s who got a ride home with us from school one afternoon. When we reached his house, the boy leaped out of the car.
He paused, searching his memory bank for an appropriate parting comment. (“Thank you,” perhaps?) Finally, out came “Alrighty then!” Bottom line: I don’t think it scarred my gang indelibly to say “please,” to wait their turn, to hold doors and to give up their seats to older people.
Now, I don’t advocate going back to the Victorian era, when etiquette was ridiculously complex, and a misplaced salt spoon (yes, they had salt spoons) on the dinner table was a gasp-worthy breach. But our society seems to have thrown Baby Miss Manners out with the bathwater and jettisoned common courtesy entirely.
And it’s not just Americans. My daughter Julie was visiting her sister Rosie in London last summer, and they shopped at the popular emporium Primark. The girls were appalled at the throng of bargain hunters who literally grabbed things out of other people’s shopping carts.
We have only one month that includes a national gratitude holiday, November. Moving forward, wouldn’t it be wonderful to make EACH month truly a month for gratitude? For loving kindness? For plain old good manners? Manners require noticing those around us not as obstacles to push aside but as fellow travelers on this planet. Being polite should not be seen as a sign of weakness; far from it.
What a world we’d have if it was OK, even cool, to be thoughtful again.
Elise Seyfried is Director of Spiritual Formation at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland. She is also an actress, wife, mother of five and co-author (with husband, Steve) of 15 plays for children. She is the author of a recently self-published book, “Unhaling: On God, Grace and a Perfectly Imperfect Life,” a collection of essays. The book can be purchased for $15 plus shipping through www.eliseseyfried.com.