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Jewish World Review Dec. 5, 2003 / 10 Kislev, 5764

Tom Purcell

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Who are you, Miss Manners? | "Can you believe that poor woman got trampled at a Wal-Mart waiting in line for a DVD player?"

"But they were only 30 bucks. I'd trample my grandma for a deal like that."

"That, sir, is precisely the problem. Too many people are so consumed with their own needs and wants, they're trampling civil society."

"Ah, put a cork in it."

"You clearly fail to see the correlation between good manners and a well functioning society. I assure you, sir, the two go hand in hand."

"Yeah, yeah."

"Look, there have been times in human history when barbarians ruled and manners didn't. But what really ruled during these periods were selfishness and impulsiveness."

"If you say so."

"Did you know the word 'etiquette' originated under Henry the XIV in the 1600's? Proper etiquette and manners defined what was and wasn't proper in that highly civilized era."

"I ain't following rules of behavior drafted up by snooty old French people."

"Then perhaps I can reference someone nearer and dearer to your heart: George Washington authored the 'Rules of Civility,' an effort to define and strongly advocate civil society in early America."

"His wife probably put him up to it. We all know old Georgie preferred to carouse with the boys."

"The fact of the matter, sir, is that America was a more mannerly place until the 1960's. Children were taught good manners in school. Adults defined themselves as ladies or gentlemen based on how well they practiced good etiquette - based on how well they were considerate of their fellow human beings."

"Hey, my old lady grew up in that era and she don't know nothing about etiquette. We went to the ballet once and she forgot the sandwiches."

"But today, sir, civility is coming unraveled at the seams. People are rude, impatient and inconsiderate. There were some theories put forth in a recent ABC news article. Some say the lack of civility is caused by our fast-paced society. Others suggest that new technology, such as cell phones, provide new opportunities for rudeness."

"Yeah, yeah."

"But I say it's because we live more isolated lives. We're getting more wrapped up in ourselves. And that is bad for our society."

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"Who are you, Miss Manners?"

"To be honest, sir, Miss Manners speaks good sense. She, Judith Martin, says that manners and etiquette are the philosophical basis of civilization. That people must have a common language of behavior that restrains their impulses. This is how we prevent our communal lives from being abrasive, unpleasant, even explosive."

"Sounds like something that old bird would say."

"She says our legal system was originally intended to punish serious conflict involving the loss of life, limb or property, but now courts are forced to handle disputes that the proper use of etiquette used to prevent."

"I ain't following."

"She says that what used to be an insult, for instance, is now called slander. What used to be meanness is now called hate speech. What used to be boorishness is now called sexual harassment. If the rules of etiquette were stronger, you see, fewer people would engage in actions that are now considered crimes."

"You think so, huh?"

"It's really not so complicated, sir. A civil society is one in which people are concerned for their fellow man. Manners and etiquette are a conscious way of exercising this concern."

"You're losing me."

"Look, we need to remember to say please and thank you. We need to open the door for strangers. We should turn off the cell phones at the movies. And at dinner, we shouldn't eat until the host does, we should never put our elbows on the table, and we should dab our mouths with the napkin, never wipe."

"Napkin? What is this thing you call napkin?"

"Oh brother."

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07/18/03: "Ain't-my-fault" lawsuits are becoming more creative
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07/11/03: Government bureaucrats, not elected officials, are really the ones determining what people and organizations can and can't do
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04/25/03: Iraqi TV
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© 2002, Tom Purcell