Why manners matter

I place a high moral value on the way people behave. I think it’s repellent to behave with anything other than courtesy in the old sense of the word – politeness of the heart, a gentleness of the spirit.” –Fran Lebowitz

Drivers run us off the road and shout obscenities. Children throw tantrums in nice restaurants while their parents chat on cell phones. Salespeople act as if they’re doing us a favor when they ring up our merchandise. Meanwhile, since few people bother to write thank-you notes anymore, we’re never quite sure if our recipients received the lovely gifts we sent.

Not that things are any better in cyberspace. Just for starters, clueless colleagues fail to acknowledge our emails — but manage to bombard us with mind-numbing Facebook status updates every 10 minutes.

Have good manners have gone the way of the manual typewriter? Well, Donald McCullough, author of Say Please, Say Thank You: The Respect We Owe One Another (Perigee Books) insists we can do better.

Extolling the virtues of not-so-common courtesy, McCullough pleads a strong case for reviving civility. Hes not talking about the “Emily Post etiquette” we drag out for the holidays and quickly stash away with the crystal stemware. Instead, McCullough hopes to salvage the basic human courtesies that help smooth out the rough edges of our daily encounters — and safeguard our relationships.

“Our lives are built one small brick at a time, ordinary day by ordinary day,” McCullough writes. “With each little expression of thoughtfulness we create something of immense significance – character, both our own and that of others.”

A former Presbyterian pastor and theology professor, the author is hardly a stuffed shirt; his guide to practical manners is as fresh today as it was when I first reviewed it for my local paper a few years go. Irreverent humor sparkles throughout 36 essays covering such topics as the importance of paying what you owe, arriving on time, returning favors, and not passing gas in public.

If you mourn the demise of handwritten letters, or you’re simply exhausted from daily encounters with rude people, this is the book you’ll wish everyone would read and share with others.

After all, even the smallest offense ultimately chips away at our humanity, McCullough says, suggesting that Americas boorish lack of manners is partly due to our inflated sense of individual entitlement.

“If something wonderful happens, we hardly pause to give thanks,” he writes. “We had it coming to us, after all.” On the other hand, we feel cheated when things dont go our way. We rant, rave, or point a finger in blame – quite often, the middle finger.

McCullough asks us to imagine how different life would be if everyone started practicing deliberate acts of civility — apologizing for mistakes, expressing sincere gratitude, and refraining from interrupting others who are trying to get a word in edgewise. Glory be!

My own faith was partly restored when I received a note from a teenager whose high school graduation party Id attended recently. He expressed sincere appreciation for the check Id written, adding, “But more than getting a check, I was glad to see you at my party.” Handwritten on monogrammed stationery, the note was short and sweet — but I couldnt have been more pleasantly surprised. I almost sent that kid a thank-you note for making my day.

How about you? Have you noticed an increase in rude behavior in recent years? Does it matter? — Cindy La Ferle