Let’s be clear: Civility and Civilization do not depend on knowing when to shake someone’s hand, or which fork to use at dinner. Decisions about whether the short version of “electronic mail” should be spelled with or without a hyphen are not earth-shaking. You don’t have to look down your nose at those enthusiastic e-mails with a multitude of exclamation points. If you’ve had a long day, it’s not even mandatory that you give up your seat on the bus.
When you add all these things together, though, along with road rage, the “familiarity breeds contempt” aspect of e-mail and the internet, and the fact that nobody appears to get dressed up for anything other than the occasional wedding any more . . . then it starts to look like we’re getting too casual about everything.
There was an episode of the sitcom “Just Shoot Me” in 1998 where the fashion expert, Nina Van Horn, comes to the office upset because she’d just seen the movie Titanic and was distraught. “All those beautiful clothes! People don’t make clothing like that anymore Everyone talks about the absentee father, but it’s casual wear that’s ruining society.” She may have exaggerated just a tad (grin), but maybe she wasn’t completely wrong.
We’ve come a long way from Jane Austen’s era when every daily detail was proscribed by etiquette. I wouldn’t want to go back to that strict set of rules any more than I’d want to go back to wearing a corset, but even as little as forty years ago, people wore hats every day, wore suits when they travelled, and got dressed for the theater. Being comfortable is a good thing, but the addiction to comfort is insidious. Why wear a skirt if jeans will do? Why wear a neck tie if you can get away with a polo shirt? Why hold the door when women’s lib so clearly made the point that women want to be treated equally to men? Why bother with spelling when it’s just an e-mail to a friend?
Except . . . what if it’s a formal business meeting? Or a funeral? There are every-day occasions where formality is still important. What if that woman you’re not holding the door for has her arms full of groceries–or a child? What about a woman holding the door for a man with his arms full?
None of these things are mandatory, but a certain amount of politeness is the oil that helps keep society running smoothly. Even if the sales clerk too busy chatting on the phone to ring up your order doesn’t seem to deserve any respect, don’t you owe it to yourself to be the best member of society you can be? Lead by example. It’s a matter of respect, after all . . . for yourself as much as for other people.