An invitation to brush up on manners

In these harried times, a Massachusetts city makes a push (but a politeone) to revive civility.

By

At the melrose middle School cafeteria, students plunk down their trays of pizza and chips on tables covered in white linen, complete with cloth napkins to wipe their mouths. The formal lunch was part of a campaign by one Massachusetts city to maintain a civil lifestyle in the face of a world where pornographers can end political careers and where gross-out films like "There's Something About Mary" are blockbuster hits. Admonitions to give up your seat on the bus to a grandmother, or not to swear in front of children, may seem more the province of Miss Manners than of a city official. But Patrick Guerriero, the young mayor of this almost-upper-crust Boston suburb, is convinced such things are central to Melrose's identity. The call for civility has echoed in cities bigger and grittier than Melrose. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is famous for cracking down on everything from jaywalking to adult-video stores. Toronto pipes opera into subway trains to cut down on violence and graffiti. Indeed, the longing for a sense of community and gracious living seems to be taking hold with an increasing number of Americans. "Urban life today is very intense, very frustrating. It makes us all more harried, more difficult to live with," says Stephen Steinberg of the National Commission on Society, Culture, and Community at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. A buildup of coarseness Melrose, a city of 28,000 that is home to gracious Victorians and the oldest volunteer orchestra in United States, doesn't exactly seem like a hotbed of rudeness. But Mayor Guerriero was concerned enough about the decline of civility to make it the focus of his inauguration speech a year ago. "I had started feeling a tension building up in this community and communities like it," says Guerriero, the youngest mayor in Massachusetts. Fast-paced living and the breakdown of family life, he says, "has led us to be more coarse with each other." Melrose is home to a growing number of residents who commute to Boston. By the time they weave their way through the morass of road construction known as the Big Dig, Guerriero says, "they're tired, anxious, and hungry." And it affects how they treat the woman in the car next to them or the guy in line behind them at the grocery store. "We all run a little too fast," says Joan Lounsbury, who's lived in Melrose for 20 years. "[The civility campaign] was a nice way to say 'Slow down, be nice to people.' " The city founded a Responding With Respect committee comprising local officials, educators, students, and residents. Clergy held a pulpit switch, preaching to other churches' congregations. The middle school is planning to start a Teen Harmony club to deal with racism. Donations to the city's holiday giving fund more than doubled. Police officers wear name tags to seem more approachable, and city workers answer phones using their first names. Politeness may sound like a little thing, but the lack of it can fray the edges of society, Melrose residents say. "It doesn't take much to say please and thank you," says Dorothy Devine, who's lived in the area for eight decades. "But you never forget it." On Main Street, people look strangers in the eye and smile, and cars stop to let pedestrians cross the street - a real rarity in Massachusetts. But it's not enough to be nice, Mr. Steinberg says: People must use civil discourse to grapple with issues like poverty, crime, and education. Politeness as prevention Other experts advise against pooh-poohing experiments in civility. What places like Melrose are doing "is a sort of preventive social medicine," says Pam Solo, head of the Institute for Civil Society in Newton, Mass. "Trying to elevate ... the importance of mutual respect" can prevent problems like crime and crumbling neighborhoods, she says. Plus, such campaigns create a climate of courtesy that makes it possible for cities to tackle more-serious issues. "If you don't have respect and decency, you're not going to be able to deal with sensitive issues," says Guerriero. Diversity and affordable housing, for example, are two things he'd like his middle-class, 98 percent white community to tackle. The national attention has residents here politely bemused. "In a way, it's too bad being civil is such a news event," says Dennis Kelley, executive director of the library. In his office, where a plaque reads, "Go placidly amid noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence," Guerriero reflects on why the civility campaign has captured attention from as far away as Puerto Rico. "[Respect for others] is at the core of our moral beliefs: Treat others the way you want to be treated."

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...