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Mind your Manners: Courtesies forgotten?

By Michael Davis

When Dottie Rahm was a little girl, she walked with her father on the streets of her native New York. Every time they would pass a church, the 72-year-old McDonough resident said her father would tip his hat.

"People don't think about things like that anymore," Rahm said. The little gestures like that she said, are long gone in modern times.

Indeed, many common courtesies and what some consider simple good manners have fallen out of favor in the minds of many. And while it may be difficult to pinpoint a reason, psychologists say shifts in self-esteem and a sense of community may contribute to a lack of awareness that one's behavior can impact others. And, on the part of those who are on the receiving end of ill-mannered behavior, an unwillingness to speak up.

"There is a huge sense of entitlement now in the culture," said Dr. Erica Gannon, an assistant professor of psychology and human services at Clayton College & State University in Morrow.

Gannon points to a disconnect within communities to the extent that when a person is seen, for example, breaking in front of someone in line, the person affected is often unwilling to confront the offender because they fear the others in line won't support their efforts to right the wrong.

In an earlier era, she said, "You were actually concerned about what people thought about you because you were connected to the people."

Today, she added, "nobody feels embarrassed or bad about anything they do because they feel like they have a right."

And "people don't want to step out on their own and be the only one confronting someone else," she said.

Rahm also recalls how once upon a time, a man walking with a lady walked on the outside of the sidewalk, closest to the street so that the lady was closer to the building away from splashing cars.

"Years ago a man always walked on the outside of the curb and ladies walked on the inside," she said.

Her new husband, John Rahm, remembers when men would give up their seat on the bus or subway to let a lady sit down.

"They don't even get up and let a pregnant woman sit down now," Dottie Rahm said.

The Rahms, both in their 70s, site a waning lack of respect among youth as one possible cause of ill-mannered behavior. And a lack of parental response when children act out.

"I went to a parochial school and the nuns would knock you down in a minute if you were disrespectful," she said.

Manners still exist, somewhere

Lanelle Henderson has made a living the last several years on good old-fashioned southern charm.

As the proprietor of a welcome service in Henry County, she and her staff make an effort to visit new residents and bring them information about the county and a friendly smile.

But Henderson, 34 and a native of New York City, said that if Southerners think it's bad here, it's even worse where she came from.

"Here, everybody speaks to you and waves, and coming from New York, my girlfriends said that's something that I'll have to get used to," said Henderson, who's been in Georgia for 15 years.

Henderson fears that with so many transients and transplants, the South may be losing the Southern charm it's known for. "We're losing it and I wish we didn't," she said.

Henderson notes the incident that caused her to move to the South.

Riding the subway, she noticed a group of disruptive teen-agers and became alarmed at their behavior, and afraid of them.

"I thought: ?These are kids,'" Henderson said.

Once in the Atlanta area, she met a woman who actually brought lemonade to a front-porch chat, something she says is a quaint, though dying Southern tradition.

Manners taught early

Gannon, the psychology professor, said that behaviors, whether good or bad, are often learned early in life through a process called modeling.

"It's something we know consistently in psychology?that behavior needs to be modeled for you," Gannon said.

"If you haven't seen that behavior modeled for you, you don't know how to do it."

That is perhaps where some kids go wrong, McDonough's Dottie Rahm said.

"I think the change is because of TV and because of language and it all boils down to respect," she said.

Because what might be considered inappropriate behaviors are reinforced on television, and consequences are not wrought when they are repeated, inappropriate behaviors are reinforced.

"You get to do what you want to with no consequences," Gannon said.

Indeed, parents like Rahm and Henderson have noticed a trend toward a hands-off approach when it comes to providing consequences for poor behavior in other people's children.

"A lot of people don't want to take the responsibility for others people's children," Henderson said. "The phrase, and I still believe it to this day and I'm a modern mom, is that children should be seen and not heard when adults are talking."

Indeed, "it just drives me up the wall to see kids talking back to their parents," Rahm said.

Adults no angels

Conceding that times have indeed changed and some of the traditional courtesies are no longer necessary, there are still manners that shouldn't go away, Henderson said.

"But I had to learn how to let a man open the door for me," she said.

The older Dottie Rahm said that some of the change in ideal behavior may been brought about during the era of women's rights. In fact Rahm's husband John often does not open the door for his bridge. "I walk faster than he does," Dottie Rahm jokes.

But in the new technology era, there are manners that may still be in development as others drop off.

"It's more and more rare that people are in situations where they have to know which one is the salad fork," Gannon said.

But the cell phone, for Henderson, should come with a manners manual. In fact, Gannon said, "I have people in my class who have answered their phone and began talking as they're walking out."

Gannon points out that while there once was a time that proper behavior was so constricting it forced rebellion, the pendulum may be on the back-swing. "I think maybe we will settle into some middle ground where we don't feel constrained by society norms but can work within them," she said.