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Have Our Manners Gone To Hell?
A controversial recent book suggests that what we think of as good manners is a relatively new thing, a commodity manufactured to meet the needs of an industrial age. But now that the Industrial Revolution is over, we may need them more than ever—for very different reasons.
September 1991 | Volume 42, Issue 5
So we have a whole host of villains. I choose none of them. The twentieth century didn’t bring an end to the class society, but it did bring the broadening of economic, political, and social power to new groups so that the old forms by which the middle classes measured themselves no longer have quite the same sway or same authority. Women, for instance, developed new forms of power. Immigrant groups increasingly developed their own power. Not that all ethnic and class differences were erased. They’re obviously not—for blacks, to take a particular example. Yet blacks are no longer expected and certainly no longer willing to comport themselves with the kind of deference that the whites demanded at the turn of the century. We’ve left that behind.
“Also, we have different institutions that have become models of our deportment. We have different kinds of figures we look to as heroes and models. For example, in part we now get our notions of how to dress and behave from movies and television, magazine and celebrities. In the nineteenth century theatrical celebrities would often model themselves upon the ‘lady’ and the ‘gentleman.’ Celebrities don’t do that now. They’re more extravagant in their demeanor and develop their own styles that become quite seductive for the young. Advertising itself has become, I think, a way of telling us not just what we should buy but how we should live, how we should associate the advertised objects with ourselves. In the broadest sense, advertising has come to tell us what is appropriate for us to desire.
“Obviously we’ve gone through a series of important changes since World War II. Though in many offices the business suit is still required, styles of dress for many jobs and occasions are much more informal. Styles of deference have changed—for instance, the development of a first-name basis. When I was growing up, I learned to address all adults by Mr. and Mrs. That’s less observed now. My in-laws still refer to their friends as Mr. and Mrs. I think they must be the last people who do that.”
But if our manners seem less formally regulated in private life than they once were, says Kasson, the development of a service-based economy since the Second World War has, if anything, intensified the importance of behavior on the job.
The politeness of flight attendants may go thin and seem highly formulaic. But by and large it works: the flight is a fairly pleasant experience.
We have created a society where many people’s jobs are what might be regarded as emotional labor, in the sense that part of their job is to help customers or clients feel good,” he says. “Their job is to guide customers toward certain outcomes by the way they express themselves. There’s a marvelous book by Arlie Hochschild, The Managed Heart , in which he talks about flight attendants and bill collectors. The job of flight attendants is, of course, safety and knowing how to handle things in an emergency. But it’s also public relations: how to serve meals, how to discipline the ‘audience,’ to look out for troublemakers, and to make the passengers feel good in the process. They coach you on how you’re supposed to deal with the various events on your trip, even get you to regard unexpected delays in a rather cheerful way. They are specially schooled in certain rituals of politeness. We may be aware sometimes that the politeness goes thin and seems highly formulaic, but generally it works. For the most part the flight seems a fairly pleasant experience.
“Flight attendants by and large are women. This has to do with what people still expect in the way of deference from men and women. Women have to play a kind of altruistic role. They have to take a rather different tone. Given a particularly irascible or troublesome passenger, the male flight attendants go to work—precisely because in the eyes of their audience they are often able to command authority. The unpleasant news is delivered by a man. So bill collectors, on the other hand, are almost exclusively male. They often work by telephone. Their job is to intimidate, to remind people rather gruffly and authoritatively that they need to attend to their financial obligations. This is another kind of emotional labor. The point of Hochschild’s study I found fascinating is that in both cases these workers are practicing a kind of ‘deep etiquette.’ They discipline themselves to perform certain scripts, to elicit certain responses from people. Their jobs depend on their success in doing this.”
At the same time, it’s undeniable that over the last several years complaints seem to have been on the rise about the deteriorating service we get in shops, restaurants, government offices, and so on: “If we’re supposed to have become a service economy, why is the service so bad?”
Kasson sees in the exchanges between customers and workers in shops or restaurants an illustration of how modern American rules of etiquette continue to reflect “notions of manners that are often based upon mutual deference one to another, broadly presuming a kind of equal footing—but also a way that we signal our place in society. The two, of course, are in tension. We all are equal, but some are still more equal than others. When you go into a shop or into a hotel, the people behind the desk address you as ‘sir’ or ‘madam.’ You don’t ordinarily do the same to them. When people are performing a service, they give more deference than the people who are receiving it.