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The etiquette gap: From Newt and Mitt to Facebook and texting

Newt Gingrich calling Mitt Romney a liar, boorish friends texting at dinner, bad Facebook manners: The nation's etiquette gap – from a shove to a shooting – can breed more incivility.

By , Correspondent

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    Newt calling Mitt a liar, boorish friends texting at dinner, bad Facebook manners: The nation's etiquette gap is the cover topic of the March 5 issue of The Christian Science Monitor weekly magazine.
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No one should do anything that can either annoy or offend the sensibilities of others.

– Emily Post

For all her family's generations of well-mannered breeding, Lizzie Post is not immune to the awkward moment. She was out to dinner not long ago with friends, and as the hour grew late, the wine flowed, and so did the foul language coming from her group. A man from another table came over and asked that they tone things down because he had children with him.

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"I was really embarrassed," winces Ms. Post, great-great-granddaughter of the legendary etiquette giant Emily Post.

But not so for one of her table mates. He said that it was the father who was out of line, that people curse, and that if the man wanted to take his children out in public, they'd better get used to it.

Such is the state of American civility in 2012, as individuals – increasingly, it seems – defy convention and claim the right to define their own behavior. Some are just doing what they see being done around them – in the ubiquitous, often-weird entertainment industry; in the frequently immature and sometimes violent world of sports; in the tempting anonymity of the Internet, where each aberration-gone-viral seems to become the new norm.

This year, so far, Americans have seen the smack-down world of politics and cable TV honing its affinity for the juvenile while continuing to embarrass the governed (Newt Gingrich calling Mitt Romney a liar; a presidential primary debate moderator launching his questions with one about Mr. Gingrich's marital affairs). They've seen the middle finger flipped during Super Bowl half time, and they've heard expletive-punctuated poor sportsmanship by a losing player's wife. They've seen Adele gnaw chewing gum at the Grammy Awards.

Good manners are keepers of the peace, say experts, who suggest that as indicators of social intelligence they may be better predictors of success in life than IQ.

Manners empower people to demonstrate respect for others, to avoid inflicting the unintentional insult, to defuse the kind of confusion that leads to conflict and violence. The mannerly know how to make good apologies when they mess up, as they inevitably will. And – as with the well-placed snub – they know how to deviate from convention as a means of voicing their concerns.

Observers say manners and civility, in fact, form the core of an ethical life, one lived first with respect for others.

This can be easier said than done. Much of TV, after all, has become a freak show, with "real" housewives taking their relationship train wreck from coast to coast, where even debonair George Clooney uses his moment in the Golden Globe spotlight to joke about another actor's anatomy.

But the great unwashed seem to long also for the good. On TV there's "Downton Abbey" leading the civility pack. And while once the socially uncertain had just Dear Abby or Ann Landers or Mom to ask, an entire industry of manners consultants, workshops, character education classes, columnists, bloggers, books, books, and more books has mushroomed.

And why not? Grandma may have looked to Emily Post when seating the mother of the groom, but Mama may have had the stepmother of the groom to think about as well. And today, with sometimes more than one groom in a ceremony, there are yet more complexities to think about.

Everyone wants to do the right thing. And as Letitia Baldrige, adviser to first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and longtime Washington manners advocate, puts it: "Nobody wants to be mean."

While some instructors have but a weekend's worth of table manners training, other advisers are far more nuanced. Ninety years after Emily Post first published her "Etiquette," even her family carries on, with substantive updates of her book and online maintenance of the Emily Post Institute website.

The rules that set you free

The greatest threat to civilized behavior? Technology, say the experts – in particular, on-screen lives that get people out of the practice of the more socially demanding face-to-face relationship.

In spite of the "miraculous" way technology has made "our neighborhoods global," observes Mary Mitchell, communications consultant and longtime columnist on matters of manners, "when people are face to face they are baffled. They don't know how to advance a relationship."

The result is a generational divide especially evident in the workplace, says Ms. Mitchell.

"Millennials" in the companies she advises tend to be "more cynical about their communication, much more succinct, and much less attentive to the turn of phrase," she says. "There's a whole lot of name-calling. I can't tell you how many times I hear Millennials – if they're fortunate enough to have a job – say how everyone in the company is an idiot." Mitchell suggests that critiques be limited to observable behavior, and that modeling the good, being willing to apologize, and being free with pats on the back can head off mean-spiritedness.

So can good manners.

"Those rules free us. They create order and prevent chaos," she says, likening them to signs on a one-way street. "And they also provide a forum for skepticism and dissent.... Once you understand them and respect them, you learn how to operate within them, and when to break them."

The well-heeled ladies who founded the Saturday Club on Philadelphia's Main Line 125 years ago didn't need a consultant to train them in the social graces. From childhood, they'd absorbed the dos and don'ts of civility and manners – some at the knees of their nannies, others from a conscientious schoolmarm or a strict family dinner table. But in 1995, the club saw the traditional imparters of social education weakening and instituted a formal introduction to it via a cotillion for children.

It's not just the kids being rude, it's the parents as well, says Jeanne Dechiario, president of the club: "You hear so many people saying 'I'm going to do the best for myself,' and 'I'm going to do the best for my kid.' My goal is to make them realize there are other people around."

The Saturday Club considers social education to be on par with other essentials of child rearing. But, says Ms. Dechiario, it is getting short shrift because the traditional training ground of the family dinner is rushed, if it exists at all, and because test-score-obsessed schools are hard pressed to fit even the basics of "please" and "thank you" into a packed curriculum. While there may be white gloves and dancing at its cotillion, the club sees the program as preparation for good citizenship, not high society.

Universities and corporations routinely offer training in manners to boost career and business success, and now some school districts are beginning to get into the act, much to the delight of P.M. Forni. The director of the Johns Hopkins University Civility Initiative in Baltimore and author of books on civility cites a 2011 Weber Shandwick poll that revealed that more than three-fourths of Americans believe social education should be taught in schools.

Civility, he says, is a cornerstone of the civic foundation. Lack of it can make things unstable: He sees it as a buffer against violence and an influence on public perceptions of political leaders.

Professor Forni explains that many of the estimated 1.8 million incidents of workplace violence a year – from a shove to a shooting – often have their origin in incivility, a lack of consideration for others.

"When you are on the receiving end of an act of incivility, of a slight, or when someone treats you rudely, in 40 percent of cases you will think about changing jobs. In 13 percent of cases you will change jobs," he says.

Fully two-thirds of Americans believe incivility to be a major problem, the Weber Shandwick poll shows, and half expect it to become the norm. A whopping 72 percent of those questioned say they have tuned out politics because of incivility shown there. Indeed, a January Monitor TIPP poll found that 80 percent of Americans think it's wrong to be uncivil, even in pursuit of an end they think is right.

Never, never say 'drapes'

Manners change with the times, and they differ by region and social group.

In the Middle Ages, for instance, people were admonished not to spit across the table or urinate in corridors. By 1945, Emily Post was writing that it would be "an inexcusable vulgarism" to use the word "drapes," instead of "curtains."

Some niceties evolve and others wane. A man may no longer automatically give up his seat for a pregnant woman, but he is more likely to take her seriously at work. While a formal foreigner may consider saying "good morning" to his bus driver to be too casual, an American might see it as basic courtesy. Up north, using first names may be common. "Down south it's sir and ma'am, straight up," says Lizzie Post. While some people wouldn't so much as whisper a swear word, in some circles they won't trust you unless you curse.

In this fluid state of interpersonal relations, a working knowledge of the finer points of etiquette doesn't hurt, but it's not essential either. Showing respect is key, experts agree. To Lizzie Post this often means defaulting to convention: "In public, it's always a good idea to defer to what would make people around you comfortable."

During meals, cellphones should be silenced and put away, not left on the table "like a ticking time bomb," she says. (She'll soon be challenged to develop an approach to a Microsoft-developed technology that attaches a device to a cellphone that will allow the user to maintain eye contact in face-to-face conversations – if not mental contact. The phone can remain in a jacket or pants pocket while the user discreetly traces text messages on it with a finger through the material of clothing.)

It's nice to call people by name, and she advises formality: use Mr., Mrs., or Ms. until invited to use a first name, and defer to your senior in age or rank.

Other tips she offers: Feel free to respond in another form if you want to make a less-public reply to a Facebook comment or an e-vite. And while conversations often drift into the formerly taboo areas of money, sex, politics, or religion, hosts should – as in the past – come prepared to calm things down via humor; some go-to, change-the-subject topics; or an agreement to disagree.

Online life is real life

Lizzie Post is one of an army of professional advice givers, many held in check online by crowdsourcing, or comments from readers, who often criticize ideas that they don't agree with while freely adding their own.

If you've ever been asked out on Facebook, dumped by text, or had a picture of a sleeping, drooling you posted online, then you'll surely agree with Meredith Goldstein, love and relationships writer for The Boston Globe. Her cardinal rule in the rapidly evolving world of e-relationships: "People should treat others with the same respect they would have shown before we changed the way we communicate."

Online life is real life, she cautions: "If you saw your ex-girlfriend on the street, would you wink? Would you be flirtatious?" Then don't poke, wink, or high-five her online. If you wouldn't dump her by letter, don't do it by text. If you wouldn't hang someone's embarrassing picture on the school wall, don't post it online. In fact, give yourself 24 hours before you post anything, she suggests. The drunk text has become the new drunk dial: Sleep it off first.

Ms. Goldstein's biggest no-no is electronic snooping, the root of an estimated 40 percent of her readers' troubles.

"Don't do it!" she warns of checking someone's text messages or e-mail: "I'm a big believer in privacy. We don't need to know everything. We shouldn't know everything. If you feel like you need to look, there's something else wrong."

Ethics aside, texts and e-mails lack the clarity and nuance of live comments and can easily be misconstrued.

Of course the "think before you write, post, or send it" rule is never more necessary than in business, where technology exposes e-mail and social media blunders rapidly, says Bill Driscoll of the staffing firm Robert Half International, which has long offered manners advice to job seekers. Hitting "reply all," forwarding inappropriate attachments, inadvertently tweeting or posting something critical of the company have all come back to haunt careless employees.

"Companies are getting more and more savvy" at uncovering nonwork identities as well, he says, suggesting candidates get the keg-stand photo – and anything else they don't want seen or read – off their Facebook page. In business, you won't be considered a stalker if you follow up by phone or e-mail on an unanswered résumé two weeks after you send it, and in fact Mr. Driscoll says he'd encourage it. Only 1 percent of hiring managers polled said a job seeker should not follow up. Face-to-face workplace manners still follow convention, he says: Move to a first-name basis only when invited, and as the business suit becomes more rare, dress according to the norms of your prospective workplace.

Locker room without walls

To many, the world of sports – once a training ground for virtue – serves as Exhibit A in the coarsening of America.

"One of the old sayings was that allegedly sports builds character. That's been amended to 'sports reveals character – or lack thereof,' " says Bill Lyon, a sportswriter at the Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years.

In decades past there was chair-tossing basketball coach Bobby Knight, the uncivil exception, it seemed. Now even quarterback Michael Vick, whose involvement in a dog fighting ring landed him in prison, seems more like the norm. Serious fan-on-visiting-fan brutality has spilled out not just from football stadiums this past year, but from hockey arenas and even baseball parks as well, making the notion of a courteous welcome to guests seem downright quaint. Was M.I.A.'s middle finger at the Super Bowl so bad in comparison?

And then there's Gisele Bundchen, wife of the losing Super Bowl quarterback Tom Brady, and the uproar over her defense of her husband's performance: Was she taunting? A protective wife? A poor loser? Whatever she was, she was not polite. Though ever closer press coverage may be revealing trash-talking that always existed below the sports radar, what's new, observes Mr. Lyon, is "the player who made a three-yard gain hopping around like he just won [the Super Bowl]. It's not enough to beat your opponent, but now you have to take his manhood from him."

As more loosely defined "press" replete with blogs, tweets, talk radio, and anonymous Web content encroaches on traditional reporting, standards of accountability and attribution suffer. On talk radio, "whoever talks the loudest wins the argument," Lyon says.

Still, good sportsmanship is out there, says Lyon. He calls the end of the annual Army-Navy football game "the best five minutes in sports," as bitter rivals, and soon-to-be-brothers in-arms, cross the field to sing the others' alma mater. There are the Olympic gold medal winners, who routinely invite fellow medalists to share the winner's platform after the playing of the national anthem. And he cites boxing, "the most violent sport you can imagine," where the victor pays homage to his opponent by raising their arms together. "These are the most gracious sort of winners."

What would Cronkite do?

For many, the "where-was-his-mother?" honors go to the national spectacle that is politics. "Until the mid-1990s, candidates didn't talk about other candidates lying," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. They instead would say that a particular statement was untrue. Now, civilities are eroding even at the highest levels, she observes. Once unheard of, network interviewers have interrupted presidents of both parties in recent years. Professor Jamieson says that vulgarities such as "screw you" or "suck" are also "sliding in" to the political dialogue. Personal integrity, she adds, is being impugned left and right and neither side is policing its own.

On the floor of the US House of Representatives, for instance, members of each party have charged opponents by name with wanting seniors to "die." Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina shouted "You lie!" during President Obama's address to Congress in September 2009.

And from the floor of Congress, Democrats over the years have repeatedly charged President George W. Bush with lying.

The "classic exchange," says Jamieson, is that a nasty remark by one side is met with a response in kind. Case in point: New Jersey state Assemblyman Reed Gusciora attacks Gov. Chris Christie, aligning him with segregationists George Wallace and Lester Maddox. Mr. Christie responds by calling people like the assemblyman "numbnuts," and things take off from there. As is typical, says Jamieson, the conservative's incivility gets heavy play on MSNBC and the liberal's incivility is big on Fox. "We can predict by the ideology of the attacker where the attack is going to be featured."

No surprise then that studies show that after watching political fighting on cable TV, a person is less likely to talk politics with friends. Jamieson's new flackcheck.org aims to call politicians and political commentators out on incendiary language: Do you know what treason actually means? And was that really what you meant to say? Are your opponents truly fools? Clowns? A mob of barbarians? And even if you think they are, do you want to say that in public?

Such incivility in speech, Jamieson warns, "is what society thinks is inappropriate. People think less of you when you do that."

At the same time, there's the Web, giving the impression that incivility in political discourse is the norm, disseminating and amplifying the kind of comment once reserved for the bathroom stall. "The anonymous nature of the Internet is feeding the sense that we are less civil," Jamieson says.

Manners are a form of morality

If some treat civility as an inconvenient impediment to achieving a more important goal, others see it as a road map for a life of meaning. Johns Hopkins' Forni tells students that manners "do the everyday busywork" of morality and ethics. Though few will have the chance to demonstrate heroism by saving a drowning child, he says, his students find compelling the notion that smaller acts – letting another driver into traffic, giving someone else the credit at the office – are just as meaningful, and can form the central component of an ethical life.

Such a life takes vigilance, says Ms. Baldrige, the Washington manners maven. "It's a matter of living that way all the time yourself, and never relaxing. Of watching your language. Of being creative. Where you're not told what to do, but when you see an opportunity you get up and help. Where you see someone having a hard time, you just get up and help."

She realized recently, she says, that some of Washington's current incivility stems from lack of training in social skills, that people who should know better simply don't. Not long ago, "everyone knew more or less how to act," she says. Now "people can be frightfully rude and not be aware of it."

But it's the language of civility – not the spirit of it – that many lack, she believes, and the language can be a safety net in private life as well as public. Along with other experts, Baldrige argues that most people do not want to be viewed as hurtful. "If you can, think before you speak and reformulate the sentence you were about to say that's too harsh or mean-spirited. Take a gulp and think of something that's kinder."

Baldrige believes adults have great power to transmit the language of civility to the young, even during casual conversations: "Having just one adult around you can teach you the words."

And when someone does make a mistake, she says, "the ability to make a good apology is a fantastic asset, not only in personal relationships but also nationally in the press." She describes the good apology as one that's immediate and very effusive. What if others might question your sincerity? Do it anyway, she says. "In a way, it doesn't matter."

The late television anchor David Brinkley demonstrated this nicely, recalls Mitchell, the manners columnist. After an apparent open-mic incident had Mr. Brinkley calling then-Presdient Bill Clinton a "bore" and predicting four more years of "nonsense" upon his reelection, Brinkley apologized, citing a long day of election coverage. Mr. Clinton accepted the apology and deflected it with humor.

Redirecting an inappropriate question is another art under siege, Baldrige says. In Washington, it often comes from a reporter who doesn't realize or care that he's being rude, pressing a candidate for personal comment, often about a rival. Many an unprepared politician winds up criticizing another's character while losing a chance to talk policy. Not only is the personal attack not what voters want to hear, Baldrige believes, but it's not what candidates want to say. "People would much rather be quoted saying something about the issues."

Gingrich famously made hay of such an opportunity in a January Republican debate. Castigating CNN's John King for asking about sexual revelations made by one of his ex-wives, Gingrich went on to an upset victory in conservative South Carolina.

Baldrige would go further in avoiding offense. Not only should people avoid saying nasty things about each other, but they should develop the ability to find something to praise, "even if you're the other party, even if you hate his guts, if you'll excuse me," she says.

Feel for the vulgarians

The Saturday Club counsels compassion and asks students to realize that a rude person may not know any better.

Similarly, Forni suggests people learn to "de-personalize" random acts of rudeness. Tell yourself that if you'd stayed home, the driver who just gave you the middle finger would have given it to someone else. Tell yourself that he's trying to get home to a young child or to the hospital to a sick spouse.

But, he advises, the people you truly care about may need to know when they're behaving badly, lest your relationship suffer: Calmly explain what bothers you, how it affects you, and what you'd like to see in the future. In an uncivil world, rudeness can be expected, though, and responding well to it is as big a part of civility as not causing it yourself. Many a "diss" can and should be ignored. Some can be addressed diplomatically, mentioning to a loud train passenger, for instance, that she probably didn't realize she was in the quiet car.

Of course, social skills bring benefits to the mannerly.

"We are almost ready to demonstrate scientifically that social intelligence is a better predictor of success in life and in school than the intelligence we measure with the IQ test," Forni explains. "The world is the oyster of the likable."

Gossip, honor, and the Heimlich maneuver

At the Saturday Club one recent evening, Jon Williams, whose nationally known cotillion company presents programs for all ages, moves among the tables. Dining etiquette is on the menu, and Mr. Williams serves up a lighthearted 90 minutes on how to deal with burps and food particles and nervous table partners. He speaks of gossip, of honor, of remembering names, and of the Heimlich maneuver.

"Is that going to solve all the world's problems?" he asks, referring to soupspoon etiquette. No. But what are table manners except another way to show respect – be it for servers, hosts, or companions?

The cotillion's credo is that power comes from kindness, courtesy, consideration, and respect, and the plan here is that that mind-set will stick after the cordon bleu is gone. Fifth-grader Meredith Lauzon believes it will, and heads into the cold evening, in her party dress, ready to practice. Specifically, she will practice not mumbling, and she will practice looking people in the eye when speaking to them. Respect, after all, is in the details.

"I think it says that you are willing to be there with that person," she says.

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