Patty Kleban: What has Happened to Manners?
September 10, 2012 6:23 AM
by Patty Kleban
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I was chatting with a colleague in my office last week about how shocked we have been at the manners of some of our students when, as if on cue, one of those students barged in and began a stream of questions, without regard to the conversation that was already taking place. No “excuse me.” No apologies. My co-worker looked at me and smiled.

What has happened to manners?

I’ve never been one to jump on the bandwagon of “this coming generation will be the demise of society” but in regards to manners, it may be true. With our fast-paced lifestyles, the immediacy of technology and an increasingly casual culture, our attention to manners has changed in the past decades.

What are manners? Manners are general rules and guidelines for how we act or how we treat others in public (and hopefully in private). Even before George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, humans have attempted to address how we interact with others and how we respond to our personal needs while being polite and respectful. Historically, etiquette was the practice of behaviors that separated the elite from the commoners. Since most of us now fall into the commoners category, manners have come to be that which separates the civilized from the boorish.

Guidelines for manners differ across groups of people. For example, burping in public is generally frowned upon, unless you live in say India or with the Amish where a good, hearty belch is a way of demonstrating that you enjoyed your food. Or if you are my daughter and can burp the dog’s names to gross out her siblings. (Thankfully, she saves that trick for behind closed doors.)

Manners evolve over time in response to cultural changes. It is unlikely that early Egyptians, recognized as being the first to outline a written code of etiquette, would have had any idea of road rage or acceptable cell phone behaviors.

Manners and etiquette help us interact positively and respectfully with each other.

Prior to the interruption in my office, my colleague and I had been chatting about some student’s lack of etiquette in “office hours” behavior.

Students who have questions about their graduation plan, internship, a class, etc. are encouraged to come to office hours. My students can either make an appointment to guarantee time with me or can stop in during open hours and wait their turn. There are students who make appointments but then either don’t show or don’t bother to call. Some stand in the doorway while another student is in conference.

I’ve been on the phone and had a student walk into my office and stand at the edge of my desk, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I’m already talking to someone else. (Equally bad is when they see that I’m on the phone and then stand right outside my door, well within earshot of the conversation). In the rare times that I have met with people with my door closed, I have even had students open my door - without knocking - to ask me a question.

We see the same in emails. There is nothing like getting an email from a student at 10:00 at night that starts with “hey can u help me” with a second email the next morning at 9:30 that says “u never got back to me.” Casual tone and text grammar aside, their needs and their communication are immediate which often equates to forgetting their manners.

Of course, the majority of students are polite and respectful, call or email if they are going to be late, and actually send handwritten thank you notes after assistance with a reference or help with a resume. I smile and tell them “your parents taught you well.”

The need to include manners and professional etiquette in our classroom materials is becoming more important. Just as corporations and other professional entities have even begun to offer etiquette training for their employees, we may need to remind students that good manners do not have to be a thing of the past.

Students in the leadership class that I teach are asked to do service in the community so I spend some time outlining professional courtesy. Be respectful in your interactions with professionals in the field. Watch your language. Use proper titles. Use good hygiene, dress appropriately and make sure you don’t smell like alcohol. Send written thank you notes. We even cover how to give a proper handshake.

Most of the students roll their eyes and look at me like I’ve lost my mind when we go over “Dos and Don’ts” of professional courtesy. Unfortunately, every semester, there is always at least one who will do something rude or unprofessional.

William Tucker, President of Dartmouth, in a presentation at the National Education Association, stated “Scholarship is not the first end of the college or even of the university. The common product of each is not the scholar by distinction, but the man who is fitted for the largest uses of society and the State. In view of these considerations, it becomes a matter of “direct concern” for the college and university to take account of the morals and manners.” His presentation was in July of 1903.

In 2012, manners are still important.

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