Decorum; (noun) dignified propriety of behavior, speech, dress. The quality or state of being decorous, or exhibiting such dignified propriety; orderliness; regularity. (source: dictionary.com)
The world is singularly lacking in decorum. I’m not sure if has always been this bad but I’m quite sure the ready access to the internet and social media has made it worse. Much, much worse. A prime example would be this election.
I know, we are all sick of talking about it, I certainly am but as an example of the breakdown in polite conversation it’s really unparalleled. We have two of the nastiest people in public life running for leader of the free world and each of them sparks such unmitigated hatred and vitriol from the other side. This is just the national level, I’m sure many of you are enduring similar idiocy on the local level. There aren’t many elections of significance here in New York but we do have the constant blather of Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio (who hate each other) to turn our stomachs.
Clearly our statesmen (and women) provide a terrible example of how to behave in public for our children. Name calling, face-making, eye rolling, rude gestures, shouting, screeching and innuendo are all par for the course but shouldn’t be in any situation. I think we’ve all seen behavior during speeches and debates that if exhibited by our children would result in severe and immediate consequences.
So how do we bring back common courtesy and decorum? It all begins at your kitchen table, or in your family room or whilst you are driving the kids to soccer. In other words it begins with you at home. We all know this and the large infractions are easy to spot and discipline; when the kids bicker and call names, or behave in a disgusting manner at mealtimes (I swear it’s like having Klingons at the dinner table sometimes) it’s very easy to tell them to cut it out and issue a consequence, but what about the subtler discourtesies? The ones that they pick up without us even noticing because the world in general has discarded them. When the kids rush ahead through the door cutting off someone else (a particular pet peeve of mine) or letting a door close on someone? What about the tone of voice when answering a question? The words might be correct or even polite but the tone is clearly calling you an idiot (or worse). These infractions are sometimes difficult to catch in the moment or we don’t even notice them now because a lack of courtesy is more common that an observance of it and this is really sad.
Children who are taught to be courteous have a much higher rate of success in life as adults than children whose parents did not emphasize it. We all know that person who behaves as if they were raised by wolves and we all avoid them like the plague. Good manners and reflexive courtesy show that a concern for the feelings of other people is of great importance. In academic and business situations it can mean the difference between success and failure. Think about it, wouldn’t you rather work with the quiet polite person? Most of us would. I can think of a few apologists that learned this lesson the hard way.
Like everything else, it’s important that we model decorum for our children all the time. I know, it can be difficult. I have spent a lot of time on the phone with my health insurance company lately and the temptation to scream profanity into the phone is so intense it is almost a physical pain, however I restrain myself because I don’t want the children to think that that is appropriate behavior (no matter how well deserved). Also you do tend to catch more bees with honey than vinegar and that is a good lesson as well. We must try to always be calm and polite to and around our children in order to show them what is acceptable behavior so that when they encounter the other kind it grates on them. They will reject it instinctively. We hope.
One wishes the Rodhams and the Trumps had made such efforts.
Here are some general principles for common courtesy
- People who are older than you come first. All. The. Time. First in line, first through the door, first down the hall, first out of the pew, served first. All. The. Time. Elderly people in particular but even the slightly middle aged, your parents, your friend’s parents, and just people in general. For boys and young gentleman this is always true of young ladies regardless of their age.
- Babies and toddlers also come first. First to eat, first to try the toy, first to pick the movie. They aren’t old enough to share and wait yet and you are so suck it up.
- Sarcasm has no place in a serious discussion with anyone. If everyone is hanging around having a fun and silly conversation that’s one thing but in any parent/child, boss/employee, teacher/student conversation it’s rude. Always err on the side of keeping your sarcasm to yourself.
- Speaking in a loud or flamboyant manner is not appropriate in most situations. If you are yelling fire, someone is bleeding, or you are being chased by a clown then by all means scream your head off and flail your arms wildly. In polite conversation we used a subdued tone of voice (indoor voice) and keep your gestures to a minimum.
- Name calling is never appropriate. Never. It’s hurtful, tacky, rude and speaks more to your character than to that of the person you are defaming. Don’t do it.
- Don’t whine. About anything. People hate it and will tune out whatever you are saying. I am astonished by how much whining I see on TV and not just kid programs (Calliou springs to mind, I wanted to throttle that particular cartoon kid) but on news programs, talk shows and radio shows.
- Always say please and thank you. Not negotiable and should be drummed into heads until it’s reflexive. I have noticed southern children are always well schooled in this particular courtesy and they always add ma’am and sir as well. It’s beautiful to hear.
- Make eye contact. This drives me nuts. We seem to be raising a generation of people who mumble at their feet rather than giving you the respect of looking up in your eye and speaking clearly. Some of my own children are, by nature, mumblers and it is a constant battle here. My son Ryan, as an autistic child had to be taught to make eye contact and it was a struggle for him – if he learned it so can you. The caveat here being that people who suffer from some forms of neurological disorders cannot make eye contact or exhibit some of these courtesies through no fault of their own, they are simply wired differently and that calls for us to be even more courteous and sympathetic. Which brings me to….
- We never, ever, ever make personal comments about people. We never say they are weird or behaving oddly or look funny even if everyone else is saying that. We do not engage in that kind of behavior and we shut it down when we encounter it. All of us are made in the image and likeness of God and some people are struggling all day every day to combat who knows what. We treat all people with the same courtesy and respect at all times, even if we are uncomfortable or confused by their behavior. You might be the one polite person, the one smile, the one pleasant conversation that that person has all day and it’s a real opportunity to see the face of Christ in all people. Don’t blow it.
- If you do blow it, apologize and make amends. This goes for all situations in which respect and decorum is called for. We all blow it occasionally and taking responsibility on these occasions is the polite thing to do.
- In general, do not use slang. When you are hanging out with friends that’s one thing (and even then it’s frowned upon) but never in conversation with adults, it makes me think you lack vocabulary. It does not impress anyone, really it doesn’t.
- Keep your opinions to yourself. If you are asked for one by all means, give it (politely) but a good rule of thumb that will get you far in life is to know in, your heart, that really, no one cares what you think. Write it in your diary or scream it into your pillow it you really must get it out, but don’t bother the rest of us with it. Especially on social media. Your words live forever there and rarely do they do anyone credit as a rational, thoughtful person.
- Always be on time. If you are running late call or text, but running late should be a function of something out of your control, delayed trains, traffic, clowns lurking on the corner. It should be rare, very rare.
That’s a general list and not in any way comprehensive. We didn’t touch upon thank you notes, following rules (when the sign says not to do something, don’t do it) or dressing appropriately. And let’s not forget the myriad of social media situations that seem to bring out the worst in people.
This list does not apply merely to children, we could all use reminders to more polite. To err on the side of decorum is a rare and beautiful thing these days, something for which we should all become known.
Emily Post’s Etiquette, by Peggy Post and Anna Post: The definitive work.
The Catholic Gentleman: Really cool website for the men in your life.
“a good rule of thumb that will get you far in life is to know in, your heart, that really, no one cares what you think.”
Brilliant. I honestly had never thought of it that way.
Hi Mary Ellen! I’m new here — I came via LMLD. I loved your post about making lunches for your husband, and I’m enjoying exploring your archives. As a mom of 3 (6 and under), I think I might learn a thing or two from you!
Thank you so much Heather and welcome!