Opinion

Whatever Happened to Good Manners?

Updated 6 weeks ago Peter McCarthy
Photo credit: EKG Technician Salary
Photo credit: EKG Technician Salary
Stock Photo by Sharon Sinclair / Creative Commons 2.0 License

We simply called them "good manners," a way in which we all agreed on behaving. Ingrained with us. I never imagined we'd see them abandoned. But one afternoon on Roosevelt Island, it happened.

Even used to increasing coarseness in crowded, anything goes New York City, I was still startled by profane lyrics amplified for a Rap video recorded along the Roosevelt Island seawall. They worked on it behind the Manhattan Park Theater Club.

Backdrop for the artists was Manhattan's growing skyline in bright sunlight... and fifteen feet ahead was a playground alive with a dozen children under ten.

Bad behavior so over the top you'd expect the parents to speak up, if the production team was too thickheaded to know it was wrong, but the session was in full swing with not a sign of protest.

Have we grown so accustomed to crude behavior we just live with it? Has it so insinuated itself in ways both large and small that we won't fight it?

The Rap incident was an exception, one unimaginable twenty years ago, but even so, everyday discourtesy has become the rule, not the exception. 

Some examples, in no special order:

Public Profanity:

In New York City, we're more exposed to each other than in most places, not as buffered behind the wheels of our cars. Words previously heard only in private, words that had impact because they were rare, are now as common as "Hello" and "What's up?"

As a writer, I appreciate the selective use of some words powered by their sparsity. I sense the loss when they're tossed around in an ordinary soup of sidewalk chatter shared with everyone in earshot. Worst of all on a cellphone or singing along with tune piped into ear buds.

They're shouted in the stands at football games. Chanted among baseball fans.

Careless use of profanity is the verbal equivalent of getting stuck in a crowd where the concept of a daily shower has not been introduced.

Sidewalk Etiquette

It's old-fashioned, yes, but my older brothers coached me that, when walking with your girlfriend on the sidewalk, you take the place nearest the curb. That way, you protect your partner from an errant splash from passing cars.

The partner is my wife, these days, and I've had to reverse the rule after watching her being run into by strangers hurtling mindlessly down the middle of the sidewalk. I'm a foot taller and almost twice as heavy, and they're less likely to smack into me. They still do but with less damage. And she's better off risking wet shoes than bruises.

Men in a hurry to get to something that can't possibly happen without them are a routine sidewalk hazard, but more often, it's younger folks of either gender, oblivious to everyone around them, their eyes glued to their cellphones.

Virtual lives can't be expected to make way for real ones.

Backpacks

One weekend, we got on the Roosevelt Island Tram, crowded as it usually is, joined by a team of kickball players heading for an event. You'd think one of them would know that jamming into public transportation demands taking your backpack off, a consideration for others.

Others, that is, being battered.

One animated athlete bumped my wife repeatedly until I pushed his backpack firmly enough to get his attention and asked him to stop. He complied. By turning so that he was able to smack some other unfortunate stranger.

Backpack battering is common on New York City subways. Few people remove them, and a sad note for the future, the younger the offender, the less likely they are to practice the expected courtesy of removing their backpacks from space belonging to others paying the same fare.

Bicycles

There's an inverse ratio between the increased presence of bicycles and respect for the rules their riders are meant to follow.

What makes this odder is the likelihood of bad behavior harming the riders as much as anyone around them.

These days, out walking in Manhattan, you can't go too far without having to dodge someone riding a bicycle on the sidewalk. Often, it's a tourist with little awareness of the rules of the road who rented a bike from street vendor who failed to tell him or her anything except the price.

A few days ago, I watched an obese woman wobbling precariously across 59th Street toward Central Park, against traffic, of course, when her safety would have increased ten-fold if she simply stayed on her feet through the marked crosswalk.

Speaking of Central Park, bicyclists are routinely invading forbidden walking trails, annoyed that strollers don't move out of their way quickly enough.

Here at home on Roosevelt Island, I recently came face to face with a man in his thirties who turned his bike sharply onto the sidewalk in front of Westview, a complex with many children and seniors, and glided toward the entrance. I raised my arms in amazement at his behavior.

His response? He yelled, "Chill!" Expecting considerate behavior apparently interfered with his personal zeitgeist.

Recently, the explosion of powered eBikes exacerbated the problem, adding danger to discourtesy.

Bad Manners Are a Habit

...And so are good ones.

I may not be flexible enough to train for a marathon again, but I'm still young enough to hold the door for others. Not just women, but whoever is lined up behind me. Courtesy costs nothing, some wisdom we all used to know.

And I give up my seat for seniors, although I'm one myself, and for anyone who shows the least unsteadiness and always for pregnant women.

I'm also old enough to be disappointed at seeing how poorly my generation has done at relaying common courtesies to our children and their children.

When my 90 year old mother-in-law used to visit, it was my assignment to race ahead of everyone else to grab a seat on IOC Red Buses. I was the only person sure to give up my seat for her, although she was almost always the oldest person taking the ride.

Children, it seems, are never taught to give way to seniors or to people with disabilities. Often, here in New York, they're actually ushered into reserved seats by their parents and guardians, where they stay unless pointedly being asked to move.

Once, I watched a man leaning against a cane for as long as I could stand it before wedging my way through a crowded bus and asking a twenty-something man to move out of the reserved seat he occupied.

"He doesn't want to," the young man objected. "I asked him."

For the benefit of those who may not have been taught as much as they should have been as children: when you're sitting in a seat reserved for others less able, you don't embarrass them by asking. You move. Period.

Conclusion

I don't know where we got off the right track and lost our consideration for others. It was probably a perfect storm of parents wanting their children to like them, the migration out of cities into sterile suburbs and an age of self-absorption so ingrained that selfie sticks are bestsellers.

But I do know we can do better. Unfortunately, it has to start with you and me in a couple of ways, one that's gratifying and one that's really not.

Hold doors, give up your seat and don't ride your bike on the sidewalk, etc. Those are the easy parts.

You also have to be willing to speak up, to ask the young man with a backpack to remove it and to remind children that racing to occupy every available seat on public transit is not cool, whether their parents like it or not.

Increasing public coarseness and inconsideration will continue leading us into Third World bedlam, on the edge of which we seem sometimes perilously perched. It really can get worse.

You don't want that, do you? 

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