What Happened to Good Manners — And Can We Get Them Back?

Two unidentified women at the Women's March on New York City in January 2017 hold signs that sum up the need for a new attitude. Justin Starr Photography/Shutterstock.com

Incivility ... rudeness ... bad manners.

Whatever you call it, it's everywhere; courtesy seems like a quaint relic of the past. Wherever you turn there’s someone’s lobbing insults or name-calling — in political discourse, in the workplace, on social media, on TV, and pretty much everywhere else. People just don’t treat each other with respect anymore, and it’s taking its toll.

Incivility and meanness not only lead to hurt feelings, psychological trauma and a divided nation, but they can also sometimes lead to violence — even death.

Are manners gone for good, passé etiquette rules from a kinder, gentler era? Are we stuck with an ever-coarsening society? Or can we still find our way back to treating each other with consideration and respect? As you ponder those questions, here’s some food for thought.

Civility gone dark

The anonymity of social media has caused incivility and cyberbullying to flourish. J_O_I_D/flickr

Rudeness didn’t just arrive during the last presidential election, though you might argue it ratcheted things up a few notches. It’s actually been quietly growing for years.

On one end of the incivility spectrum, there’s a growing lack of basic manners and thoughtfulness. Call them small slights and snubs. No "please" when someone asks a favor. No "excuse me" when a stranger bumps into you. Not enough room to park because another driver crossed the line and didn’t bother to back up and try again.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s hate speech, where insults and rhetoric harden into dangerous stereotypes and even violent actions.

Meanness is almost the new normal. Just watch reality TV or scan social media (where people relish spewing the most despicable slurs under the emboldening cover of anonymity).

Politics are especially filled with personal attacks and mudslinging. As long as it’s done in the name of honesty or personal defense or free speech, apparently anything goes.

The problem, though, is that all this negativity doesn’t just evaporate after it’s unleashed. According to Time magazine, studies show the more incivility we experience, the more it grows. In other words, rudeness is contagious, kind of like the flu or an internet meme.

Why? Because when someone is rude to us, instead of seeking justice, we often seek revenge. We don’t press charges like we might if someone robbed our home. Instead our first instinct is to make the rude offender feel as bad as they made us feel. We respond with more rudeness. And on it goes.

Defining civility

It might seem impossible to agree on what mannerly behavior is. Civility can look very different depending on your cultural upbringing or the family-centric social etiquette you were taught at home. Case in point: belch in an Asian home and it’s considered a compliment to the chef. Belch in a non-Asian home and you may be asked to leave the table.

PM Forni, a professor of Italian Literature at Johns Hopkins University and founder of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins suggests a more general way of defining courtesy in his 2002 book "Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct."

Through talking to people around the world, he found that almost everyone agrees you can measure the success of your life by how you treat others. "When we lessen the burden of living for those around us we are doing well; when we add to the misery of the world we are not," he writes. Civility, he adds, is a "code of behavior based on respect, restraint and responsibility."

Why be nice?

Gentleman tipping his hat
Simple, gracious acts can make the world go 'round at a much more peaceful pace. Everett Collection/Shutterstock

Treating others civilly is a way to maneuver through life as graciously and considerately as possible. It greases the wheels of social interaction and makes things run more smoothly and positively. Whether it’s saying hi to your mail carrier, thanking your bank teller or making small talk with the plumber – being courteous just makes life a whole lot more pleasant and the world a friendlier place.

What if you don’t like someone or disagree vehemently with what they’re saying? No need to disparage them or get drawn into verbal or physical combat with jerks and bullies. You may not manage perfect manners 100 percent of the time, but at least start there. Make civility your default choice. Even in awkward or tense situations, a bit of Zen detachment and empathy (walking in someone’s shoes) goes a long way.

By staying calm and respectful, you may be able to diffuse drama and discord before they spread. Bottom line: diplomacy can amount to self-preservation. Call it smart.

That being said, nice isn’t smart if you’re too nice, a pushover. Some people see manners as a sign of weakness. You can maintain civility and still stand your ground, or say no and walk away.

Spreading civility

Dome inside U.S. Capitol in Washington DC beside the statue of George Washington
Buildings like the U.S. Capitol were built to inspire a higher level of conversation. Felix Lipov/Shutterstock.com

A lot of us need help talking politics these days. The National Institute for Civil Discourse, created in 2011 in response to the mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona that wounded former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, has launched a new grassroots effort called the Initiative to Revive Civility. It recommends the following steps to help bridge the growing political divide:

• Read a variety of reliable news sources with different perspectives to help you understand more about what divides – and unites – us.

• Listen respectfully to people with views that don’t match yours, resisting the urge to stereotype or use insulting or derogatory language.

• Help bring people with differing viewpoints together in your community for productive conversations.

These same principles apply in other areas of life. If you disagree with a friend or family member, listen politely with your full attention. Try to understand their point of view and respond courteously. It’s okay to express your own opinions, but don’t forget about the things you have in common. Something as simple as treating others as you’d like to be treated can go a long way toward maintaining civility.

And it's not that you shouldn’t take action when you see someone being rude. Step up and ask them to stop. Call them out firmly but gracefully without being mean or aggressive.

Also effective is helping people see how they look to others. During his time as mayor of Bogota, Columbia in the 1990s, Antanas Mockus hired 420 mimes to gently shame drivers and pedestrians who broke traffic rules or acted inconsiderately in public. When someone parked on the sidewalk or jaywalked, for instance, mimes would shadow them, mimicking their bad behavior. This "mirroring" effort cut traffic fatalities by more than half and reduced discourteous public behavior.

You can use the same tactics to keep your own worst instincts in check. Former White House social secretaries, Lea Berman and Jeremy Bernard, co-authors of "Treating People Well," recommend viewing yourself from the outside. As they note in their introduction: "Act as if the entire world is watching and you cannot fail to do the right thing. Most of us like to think of ourselves as good people, and if we sense that what we’re doing is public, we’re more likely to behave reasonably."