One of our editors, who grew up in the 1960s in a not especially affluent subdivision, lived two doors down and across the street from a nice old man named Joe Zalewski.
When you were playing in the street and you saw him outside, the editor says, this is what you’d say: “Hi, Mr. Zalewski, how are you today?”
Mr. Zalewski would say, “Fine, (fill in the first name of the child), how are you?”
You would respond, “Fine, Mr. Zalewski, thank you.”
You never would call Joe Zalewski “Joe.” And the thought of being rude to Joe Zalewski, and having your parents find out, was too awful to contemplate.
In retrospect, the editor says, the following scenario runs through his mind:
KIDS in the street playing.
KID #1: “Hey, where’s Danny? I haven’t seen him for a while.”
KID #2: “He was rude to Mr. Zalewski.”
KID #1: (shrugs) “Well, the kid had it coming.”
The editor says he’s exaggerating, but also, he says, not by much.
The subdivision was not much different from other residential neighborhoods across the United States. The parents of that time—children of the Depression—drilled into their own children the importance of manners.
That doesn’t seem to happen so much anymore—and really hasn’t been happening for decades.
The late 1960s, with the country in tumult over the Vietnam War and urban unrest, saw the first serious inroads into eschewing politeness.
Young people saw little point in hewing to standards of what they considered a bygone time, especially when they were being asked to respect institutions and elders that they considered “irrelevant” at best, and murderous and corrupt at worst.
As they began raising their own children, many of them decided to cast away how they were raised in favor of a more informal approach. Why engage in stilted manners at all?
And children raised in that way, of course, would use that as a benchmark to raise their own children.
While attitudes were changing in the home, priorities were changing in the marketplace. Low prices and quick service increasingly were seen as most desirable. Courteous service, especially when routinely accompanied by higher prices, lost its luster.
We’ve now arrived at a time when manners and courtesy seem to be in danger of becoming a lost language in the United States.
Consider two 18-year-olds 50 years apart:
An 18-year-old in 1969: “To hell with manners! They’re just part of the bourgeoisie sell-out to the power structure!”
An 18-year-old in 2019: “What are ‘manners’?”
Ironically, this comes at a time when, as people, we interact with each other less and less. Many people work by themselves in relative isolation. In non-work settings, conversation declines as cellphone obsession grows.
For many adults, getting food at a drive-up window or standing at the checkout counter in a supermarket may provide the only one-on-one conversations they have for hours. Accordingly, they can loom that much larger in their daily experience.
A number of businesses on the Upper Cape say they strive to emphasize the importance of pleasant interactions with customers.
They include the Roche Bros. supermarket in Mashpee. Dena Kowaloff, director of marketing, media and public relations for the Wellesley-based chain, said the chain’s emphasis on the Golden Rule hearkens to the company’s founders, brothers Pat and Bud Roche.
The idea, Ms. Kowaloff said, is to “treat others as you want to be treated.” Polite, friendly service at the checkout counter, she said, is part of that approach.
Despite the assertions of disbelievers, manners definitely have an upside.
Situations and organizations often go better when participants are polite.
Manners also can tie into self-interest. People with manners can “pass” in certain circumstances despite their perceived lack of socioeconomic status. An argument can be made that instilling manners in young men and women from the inner city is worth more than a host of targeted government programs.
So manners may be down, but not, thankfully, out. Perhaps the pendulum will swing again, away from rudeness and back toward civility. The reemergence of the Joe Zalewski Standard would serve the nation well.