Is common courtesy on the decline, as many seem to think? Personally, I'm not so sure. I never thought it was all that common to begin with.
Certainly, it's getting harder to find people who practice what used to be considered basic good manners - for example, men who hold the door open for ladies. Of course, it's also getting harder to find ladies.
But before we become too vocal in decrying the "death of manners," we should acknowledge that as society has changed, so too have our views on what constitutes proper etiquette. We may be more tolerant of hats indoors and elbows on the table, but there are some things we will simply not tolerate, such as cable outages during football season.
In other words, it's not that we've abandoned the idea of courtesy but rather that we've developed a new set of rules that seem more relevant to modern society. And just as with the old set, we violate these rules at the risk of humiliation and ostracism.
Take cell phones, for example. Our culture has developed, by general consensus, guidelines that govern when and where cell phones may be used within the bounds of good manners. (And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the first known use of the terms "cell phone" and "good manners" in the same sentence.)
Thus, while it is considered rude to use your cell phone in a nice restaurant, you may do so with impunity in a fast food place. You can also talk on your cell at the ballpark or shopping mall, but not at church or during a movie. And Aunt Gertrude's funeral is hardly the place to rock your "Don't Fear the Reaper" ring tone.
You should also not use your cell phone while you're alone (or, for that matter, when you're not alone) in a bathroom stall. That's just kind of creepy.
Those who violate these unwritten rules may face more than just angry looks from passers-by. According to the Washington Post, Metro Transit Police recently arrested a young woman for talking loudly and obscenely on her cell phone in a train station. No doubt her behavior unnecessarily distracted the officer from the muggings going on nearby.
Transit authorities, reports the Post, "say that cell phones have become just another instrument of loutish behavior in the public space and that they are fighting a dramatic distortion of manners in the transit system." How they distinguish loutish behavior from normal behavior in a city full of politicians and bureaucrats isn't clear.
Says Robert J. Smith, chairman of the Metro board, "We wouldn't allow someone to come into the U.S. Capitol rotunda and shout obscenities into a cell phone."
No, Mr. Smith, we certainly would not. This is America, where you have to get yourself duly elected to Congress before you can shout obscenities in the Capitol Building.
Rob Jenkins is associate professor of English at Georgia Perimeter College. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.