We have just come through the season of giving, and I am always humbled by just how giving we Americans are. We dug into our pockets to help victims of natural disasters ranging from tsunamis to hurricanes to earthquakes. We went to far-fl ung locations to provide physical assistance and moral support. We also gave to our local causes even though many of us had already blown through our budgets for charitable giving.
Americans are a generous people.
We can also be incredibly rude.
A cousin and I traveled in southeast Asia one fall, a wonderful and memorable experience in all kinds of ways. Airline travel in that part of the world was an unexpected delight. Thai Airways even had vases of orchids in the onboard restrooms, but the service really shone. Lovely and slender young women in uniforms patterned after traditional Thai dress fl oated down the aisles with bottles of wine inquiring whether we would like more red or white.
I know, of course, that Americans no longer tolerate employment requirements about gender, weight and makeup, but we do tolerate what seems to me an increasing level of rudeness in our culture.
This was brought home to my cousin and me several times on our trip. The first was an American man who loudly berated airline personnel in Bangkok because our late trans-Pacific flight caused him to miss his connection. He shouted at counter agents, who had, of course, had nothing to do with the delayed fl ight, demanding that they buy him a train ticket to his next stop and give him a meal voucher even though we had just had a large breakfast on the plane. Everyone within earshot was embarrassed.
Another tilt on the rude-o-meter came once we were back in the United States on a domestic airline on the way to the east coast. A flight attendant, a middle-aged woman with a loud voice and dirty hair, was selling earphones for $2 to passengers who wanted to watch a movie or listen to music. The man seated in front of me had been coughing and as the earphone-hawking attendant passed his seat he asked her politely for something to drink. Her reaction left him — and me — speechless.
“Does this look like a beverage cart to you?” she snapped, adding that she would deal with drinks after she finished selling the earphones.
I do not know whether that poor fellow ever got his water, but I do know that in addition to safety training, that airline should consider bringing on Miss Manners as a consultant.
None of us really know whether Americans were more courteous and polite in past generations, but I suspect that our “Me! Me! Me!” culture of today with the emphasis on individual rights and self-fulfi llment has created, at best, less sensitivity for the feelings of others, and, at worst, a lot of truly rude people.
I hear cell phones go off in meetings and in movie theaters. I see people all the time interrupting actual face-to-face conversations to take cell phone calls, leaving others to stand by and listen to personal, even intimate discussions with who-knows-who on the other end of the wireless call. I deal with surly store clerks who begrudge me their time and effort even though I may buy some item or service for which they might receive a commission. I receive emails from people who write things I doubt they would ever say in person. I see motorists make obscene gestures and mouth curses to other drivers.
The list of rudeness is endless, and I know you see it, too.
Just out of curiosity, I did a search on the word “manners.” My grandmother called manners the glue of society and said they are what keep us from killing each other. The search did not quote my grandmother, but it did turn up several insights on the concepts of manners and of rudeness. Eric Hoffer observes that “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.” Margaret Walker and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas had similar takes. They said, respectively, “Friends and good manners will carry you where money won’t go,” and “Good manners will open doors that the best education cannot.” George Bernard Shaw’s Henry Higgins tells his waif-intraining- to-be-a-lady that “The great secret, Eliza, is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manners for all human souls.” Emily Post, the Miss Manners of her day, put it this way: “Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners no matter what fork you use.”
My favorite, though, comes from an unknown author and it pretty much sums up the concept of manners for me.
“Treat everyone with politeness, even those who are rude to you — not because they are nice, but because you are.”
Photo: Although Americans are a generous people, we can also be extremely rude.