June 23, 2005,
"Why do people act that way?" a young Delta Airlines stewardess recently asked in astonishment as an underground shuttle scooted among terminals at Georgia's Hartsfield Airport.
"It's manners," an older, exasperated colleague replied. "Most people aren't taught any."
Who knows what outrages they endured that day at 35,000 feet. Serving hundreds of regular people daily, it could be anything.
On a recent flight from La Guardia to Atlanta en route to New Orleans, a young father prepared to change his baby son's diaper on the empty window seat beside his own spot on the aisle. After another horrified passenger and I objected, the tot's mother addressed the infant's biological needs in the appropriate place the lavatory. She looked disturbed that anyone would oppose the sanitary affront her husband attempted.
The ongoing collapse of courtesy is no surprise in a nation with so many people who are as self-absorbed as black holes. Consider this T-shirt I've spotted: "It's all about me deal with it."
As a consumer of opinion journalism, you likely are refined and well-mannered. If not, or you wish to help someone seemingly reared by pigeons, follow these twelve small steps toward a more polite America.
1) We can hear you now. Even if your party cannot understand your cellular call, those around you often cannot escape your every word. What you ate for lunch and where you are standing right now is far less interesting to them than to you, so restrain your voice. Or better yet, stay off your phone when surrounded by others.
2) Excellent venues to disable cell phones include restaurants, theaters, and funerals, the last four of which I attended were interrupted by mobile phones. Also, there is nothing quite like being in a restroom while a stranger screams his life story into a handheld device. For tips on cellular etiquette, see here.
4) Push in your seat when leaving tables in restaurants, libraries, and conference rooms. Abandoning your chair or barstool in the middle of a path obstructs those who walk by after you depart.
5) Before exiting a bathroom, close the toilet lid and all. Leaving the lid or seat up makes the next guest contemplate whether you stood or sat during your visit. Spare him or her that imagery.
6) It remains civilized to hold open the door for someone who is walking a few steps behind you. Letting the door slam in his face is rude. When someone opens a door for you, say "thank you." Muttering "Excuse me" makes a gracious person feel his thoughtfulness is abusive. Walking by and saying nothing, as if that lady or gentleman were your servant or simply invisible, is vulgar.
7) "Please" and "thank you" are not vulgarities. Use them generously, especially around children. They need to learn two of the language's finest words, even if adults say them less than they should.
8) "RSVP" means, "Tell those who have invited you to an event whether you will attend." They will welcome your "yes" or regret but appreciate your "no." Not replying leaves them perplexed, unclear of how many guests to anticipate, and miffed if you eventually arrive unexpectedly.
9) Thank you notes, e-mails, and phone calls are appropriate when someone has given you a present, meal, or significant favor. Not even acknowledging a Christmas gift, in contrast, is particularly boorish.
10) Always leave your phone number with your phone messages. Let people simply jot down your number rather than drop everything to look it up.
11) Control your kids. It's not cute to let children run amuck on airplanes, kick the backs of people's seats, and holler uncontrollably. Teach your children to restrain themselves in public rather than terrorize grown-ups.
12) Trash cans are there for a reason. Use them. Customer work areas at Kinko's copy shops often resemble an explosion at a paper factory. A major airline's east coast shuttle lounge in Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport gateway for learned attorneys, lobbyists, journalists, and members of Congress recently almost suffocated beneath whole sections and loose pages of various newspapers. They were strewn across the floor and on many seats. These literate adults apparently did not have their mommies on hand to locate the ubiquitous, neglected garbage bins.
The point of all this is not necessarily to turn every American man and woman, respectively, into Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, though we could do worse. The idea is to encourage each of us every day, in tiny ways to subtract from, rather than add to, the worries of an impolite world.
Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia.