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New rules for 21st century etiquette

Etiquette, they say, is the oil that lubricates social interaction. Unfortunately, like oil, most people these days seem to be trying to use as little as possible.

Perhaps that's why so many of the rules I grew up with - what we used to call "good manners" - seem to be going the way of the rotary phone and family-friendly television.

The real problem, though, isn't just that people don't follow the rules anymore. It's that too many of the rules no longer seem to apply. And yet as a society we're still badly in need - perhaps more than ever - of that indispensable lubricant. (And I'm not talking about the stuff they advertise on non-family-friendly TV.)

Clearly, what's required is some sensible updating of the old rules to better accommodate modern realities. Allow me to be among the first to offer some suggestions.

First, as was the custom when I was young, gentlemen should still not wear hats indoors. However, shopping malls, mega-discount stores, home improvement warehouses, sports arenas, and fast food restaurants should no longer count as "indoors." Neither should supermarkets, coffee shops, or post offices before 9 a.m.

These days, even gentlemen must be allowed to compensate for bed-head.

Churches, schools, nice restaurants, and other people's homes do still qualify as "indoors." So do funeral homes, law offices, movie theaters, and any store that doesn't end in "Mart" or "Depot."

Also, as a young man, I was taught to open doors for ladies. I believe a gentleman should still open doors for ladies, as well as for most other women, the exception being those wearing "Hillary '08" T-shirts. In that case, the gentleman opens the door at his own risk.

And of course there's no reason a gentleman can't open the door for other men, too, especially if they're carrying something heavy.

Another rule, when I was a child, was that I should never interrupt a conversation between two adults unless a) I was on fire, or b) I had a broken bone poking out through my skin.

The problem with that nowadays is first of all it's difficult to find two adults, but more importantly there are many more reasons to interrupt: DFACS is at the door, your therapist is on the phone, the cable just went out in the middle of Sponge Bob, the neighbors' Rottweiler is coming on to your Shih Tzu.

So perhaps we need to rewrite the old axiom "Children should be seen and not heard" to read: "Children will be neither seen nor heard if you have the good sense to put a TV and a PlayStation 2 in their room."

Anyway, those are just a few suggestions for bringing the rules of etiquette into the 21st century. I could go on, but one of my children is interrupting me. Seems DFACS is at the door.

Rob Jenkins is associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. E-mail him at rjenkinsgdp@yahoo.com.