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Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Opinion Column

Manners can be fun

Commentary by JoEllen Collins

One of the bibles of my childhood was a book intended to produce well-behaved young people called "Manners Can be Fun." While I no longer have a copy, it left a huge impression on me. I recall the joys of testing my own sense of propriety against the book's drawings of naughty boys with their elbows on the table. We spent a lot of time in my generation learning manners.

Part of every family meal included practice of the rules of polite conduct. (That daily required family dinner gathering may be less prevalent now.) We were instructed not to talk with our mouths full, to request but never reach for table items, and to always ask, "May I leave the table, please," before bolting.

I have written before of my dismay at the rudeness often evident in our rushed modern lives: the lack of RSVPs and thank you notes and most especially the aggressive discourtesy of motor vehicle operators. At the risk of sermonizing, pedantry and redundancy, I wish to share some examples of the civility I recently witnessed in another culture. CBS's "Sunday Morning" show just featured the remarkable evidence of honesty among the Japanese because of their established cultural virtue of empathy. Surely most social behaviors are culture-related: nonetheless it is fascinating to see how the mannerisms of a society so aptly reflect other values.

I have just returned from two weeks in Switzerland visiting an English friend. We stayed at three different hotels, from a luxurious spa to a modest village B&B whose simple rooms nonetheless overlooked the Eiger. We walked miles on the paths found everywhere in that country and stopped at small inns in remote passes. Always, everywhere, we were treated with courtesy and respect. I'm sure my friend's command of German helped, but when I used English, no one ever made me feel uncultured or stupid.

Most Americans are aware of the Swiss reputation for hospitality, so one assumes decent treatment there. But beyond the graciousness exhibited toward tourists, I noted several other admirable examples of polite interactions. For example, I never saw children behaving loudly or running around restaurants, and they generally finished their meals without complaint. Neither did I hear them in the streets or in stores endlessly demanding things they wanted.

I noted that in return children and their parents were respected. I was impressed with the existence in most inn and hotel bathrooms of clean and comfortable diaper changing stations. Some even had warm towels and colorful mobiles for the infant's pleasure.

There were other joys, naturally. Way up in the still snowy Sils-Maria area near San Moritz, a sign at the entrance of a walking path had a picture of a dog fronting a bin of plastic bags. Instead of commanding, "Clean up After Your Dog," the Swiss instead chose one word to put under the image, BRAVO, a positive and polite reminder to bag a dog's droppings. As a result of these omnipresent receptacles, the paths are free of refuse.

On Easter Sunday, in an inn high up the base of the Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps, the aged proprietress asked us if we knew the Oster (Easter) egg game. She took time to show us the simple game and gave us the eggs as a reward. She thanked us for taking the time to enjoy her place and the modest ritual. At almost every dinner everywhere, the owner came to our table and asked us if we were enjoying the meal. We were treated like royalty, even at the humblest place.

In addition to the courteous hosts, we found that other guests of our hotels often greeted us at meals, nodding and wishing us well. Always, people smiled at and acknowledged one another.

So, what does this mean? I do certainly encounter polite people in my school, parents who take the time to say hello and even a couple of second-graders who will open the door for me and wish me a good morning. I know we do not entirely lack manners. Nonetheless, I have noticed an absence of some of the courtesies I was taught. A mother on my plane home consistently allowed her daughter to stand up in her seat, blocking everyone's view of the movie. That child was being taught selfish discourtesy at the expense of others. Try saying "no" to a child's request for a toy or candy, or visit a local family restaurant and see how many American kids behave.

I hope I'm wrong. I looked for children's books on manners at The Community Library in Ketchum. There were only two, one new and the other intended for very young children. It has been checked out 16 times in three years. I scanned them and noted a common theme, the one that I had unconsciously been examining. Most manners are based on a sense of empathy like the Japanese possess or on the concept of the Golden Rule. The result of abiding by these precepts is ultimately rewarding ("Manners Can be Fun") because people will respond positively, considering the well-mannered person as thoughtful and kind. The rewards outweigh the discipline. In training puppies, owners are reminded that a well-behaved puppy is a welcome puppy. One could say the same for children and for adults who may have forgotten the joys of civilized interactions.


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