What Happened to Manners?

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It’s been a bad few days for etiquette. First it was Congressman Joe Wilson yelling “You lie!” at President Obama during the president’s address to a joint session of Congress. Next Serena Williams came unglued on the court at the US Open and told a line judge “I feel like taking this f-ing ball and shoving it down your f-ing throat.” Then Kanye West walked on stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the VMAs, grabbed the microphone out of her hand and told the audience Beyonce really deserved the award more. These three events in close succession have led me (and a lot of other folks) to think about what is happening to good old-fashioned manners and basic civility in this country. They also remind me of that saying we used to have when I was in grade school: “Rude, crude and socially unacceptable.”

Let’s start with rude. When you examine all three incidents, Kanye West’s was really the least offensive. The MTV Video Music Awards are not exactly an exercise in decorum. (Actually it’s turned into more of freak show if you ask me — yes, my age is showing. I mean, what WAS that thing Lady Gaga was wearing on her head anyway?) No, the VMAs are mostly about celebrities and wannabes trying to grab the limelight in anyway they can – whether it’s their outfits, their over-the-top performances or literally grabbing the microphone out of someone else’s hand as Kanye did.

The tennis courts at the US Open, however, are something different. Unlike the VMAs, there are actually rules of etiquette in tennis. Sure, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors had their outbursts, but I don’t remember either of them threatening to shove a ball down someone’s throat. I’d call that Crude (and more than a little bit frightening).

Though Serena and Kanye were a close second and third, I save my top “Acting the Fool” award for House Representative Joe Wilson from (alas) South Carolina because he did not yell out at the VMAs or even on the tennis court, but the House floor of the Congress of the United States – a place where the rules go so far as to require members to address each other in the third person (that’s why they always refer to each other as “the gentleman from North Carolina” or “the gentlewoman from Maine”). If civility is not upheld there, where will it be upheld? If it is acceptable for an elected member of the United States Congress to behave this way, then why shouldn’t everyone else get down in the gutter too?
Joe Wilson earns the Socially Unacceptable award and as a result he will forever be known as “the guy who yelled at Obama during the speech.” How’s that for a legacy? Maybe that’s what we should all be taking away from this week – that there is a price to pay for bad behavior. Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post, says the public was “not impressed” by any of the actions of these three. Serena lost her match, was fined and blasted online for her behavior. Kanye’s fellow music stars condemned him on Twitter and all over the Internet. Seventy percent of people polled disapproved of Joe Wilson’s behavior. And while he’s raised a pile of money since his outburst, it’s also elevated his opponent, Rob Miller, from virtual obscurity and put over a $1 million in his coffers to run for Wilson’s seat in the next election.
It’s really Joe Wilson that bothers me about this week. A musician and a tennis player behaving badly is one thing, but seeing the incivility seep into the halls of Congress made me worry. Are we Americans becoming rapidly less civilized in this world of talk-over-each-other cable tv news and berate-those-you-don’t agree-with talk radio? Is this coarseness the product of too many families not sitting down to eat dinner together, our children watching too many kid actors rolling their eyes and mouthing off to their parents on television, and idolizing celebrities who insult others in the name of “keeping it real”? Or is what I am feeling as a parent now no different than my parents worrying the world was going to hell in a hand basket when I listened to Prince’s 1999 album or watched the movie Porky’s? What do you think? Are we losing our sense of civility and good manners, or should we just try to forget the past few days and be thankful we at least have Beyonce?

Sara Ellington is the author of The Mommy Chronicles (Hay House, 2005) and The Must-Have Mom Manual (Ballantine/Random House, April 2009)
www.saraandstephanie.com

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