Have Our Manners Gone To Hell?

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“When we’re dissatisfied with the service, it often has less to do with the actual service given than with the sense of regard or attention we get. If you have a salesclerk who’s talking on the telephone during the whole time of your transaction—as I’ve had done to me more than once—you feel, in a certain way, dissatisfied. Even if that salesperson observes certain rituals of respect, such as saying thank you at the end, you’re going to feel a little let down.”

Kasson notes that standards of behavior continue to be in flux today. In some regards American society seems to be retrenching from the broadly casual behavior that dominated through the 1980s. He sees signs of a swing back toward more formality.

In the 1980s your waiter would be an unemployed actor who’d say, ‘Hello, I’m Steve. I’m your waiter tonight.’ That level of informality and blithely casual service was quite common. Certain restaurants now are trying to school their waiters and waitresses back to a more formal relationship. They’re realizing that the whole success of the meal in the eyes of the customer very much depends on the waiter’s performance, on his being able to coach people’s feelings about the meal.”

And that’s not the only good news for the Misses Manners and the Amy Vanderbilts of the world. Kasson mentions the irony that while contemporary society may seem more “relaxed” about etiquette and manners, there are in fact more professional “advisers” circulating their views in print and other popular media than ever before, even at the height of the Victorian age.

“There’s a tremendous market for it,” he notes, “a proliferation of all sorts of advice and experts. Some insist on the acquired conventions more painstakingly than others, giving us advice on traditional etiquette. But there are also psychological-advice columnists, advice on sexuality, on marriage, on how to be your own best friend, how to pick up women or men, all of that. We have whole series of books that offer more specialized etiquette, often for business purposes: how to run an effective meeting, how to conduct a power lunch, how to swim with the sharks. In fact, I think we’re much more highly regulated in our manners than we ordinarily give ourselves credit for. We still have an enormous literature telling people how to use social settings for various operational purposes.”

Still, Kasson offers a note of caution for today’s etiquette advisers. “Etiquette was never able to keep a firm lid on and regulate American society in the nineteenth century,” he says. “There’s no doubt about that.” As our society grew more “highly heterodox and highly combustible” at the end of that century, old formalities gave way.

At the end of this century, Kasson believes, American society is even more heterodox and combustible, the economic and political competition more fierce, the gaps between the classes even wider. We may look back with bemused nostalgia at the more genteel and polite era of the Victorians, but we must not forget that in many respects this golden age of civility was—and remains—an idealized fiction with only limited applications in the real world.

The 1840s: The 1870s: The 1900s: The 1920s: The 1980s: