Winds of Change Blow Manners Back Into Society

It's happening in the prisons. It's taking place in Silicon Valley corporate boardrooms. It's even going on in children's classrooms. For a change, they're teaching, not violating, good manners, and it's catching on across the country.

This growing trend in learning proper behavior is bringing the wisdom of the exquisitely correct to a generation that frankly, to some, appears to have been raised by wolves. Specifically, that would include everyone from folks at Netscape Communications Corp. to freshmen at Johns Hopkins University to lifers in the Maryland Correctional Institute - all bringing in professionals to brush up their social skills.

While the adult classes are multiplying quickly, according to Pamela Hillings of Hillings Enterprises, an etiquette consulting firm in Pasadena, Calif., the fastest-growing segment of her business is manners for children. She notes that many children are being raised by two career parents who don't eat family meals together, while others simply don't have the time or the inclination to teach their children proper manners.

Now, she says, "many of these two-career couples are realizing how hard life really is and thinking, 'We need to give them every possible advantage.' "

As for the big kids, "We're seeing many adults with the same problem, a lack of basic social skills," remarks Ms. Hillings, and for some of the same reasons: lack of training and time.

She points out that many of the high-tech types she works with went directly from a computer classroom into a highly competitive, high-tech workplace where there was little if any time to acquire the sorts of social graces that make life more pleasant - and successful.

But, Hillings gently observes, demonstrating the finesse she gets hired to teach others, there is plenty of opportunity to lose the fruits of their life labors if the basic social grease of civilization is missing. "[Manners] are about how to get along with others," says Hillings, "and how to think about something other than oneself."

Compound the graceless state of the unmannered with the vast social changes of the past few decades, and many otherwise decent individuals find themselves sidelined socially for the simplest of reasons: not knowing what to do. To address this issue, Prof. P.M. Forni at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has created a special civility project to study the relevance of polite behavior in America today. What better place to test its significance than the maximum-security Maryland Correctional Institute in Jessup?

"We hope to develop in people the sense that in a civil society we can't afford to ignore the rules of behavior, that we do so at our own risk," reflects the professor, who combines undergraduates with long-term inmates to discuss the consequences of behavior. "We thought it was an appropriate setting to put the issue in some perspective," he says with a hint of wryness.

The project itself was born of Professor Forni's observation of what he calls a growing culture of "happy rudeness," in which incivility is portrayed in the media with a comedic edge that "makes us forget about the possibilities of hurt from that behavior in real life."

He says the prisoners provided some of the most compelling reasons possible for the importance of common courtesy in everyday life. Said one Maryland lifer, "Civility saves lives."

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