Where Have You Gone, Ms. Manners?

Because you're certainly not here

If you waited, like I did—like half the city did—that long, crowded hour on Saturday night for the PIFA finale hoopla to just please finally start already, then maybe you, too, were overcome by the same overwhelming spirit that I was. Maybe you, like me, stood in the midst of thousands of your fellow Philadelphians just waiting to be awed, and were suddenly possessed by the all-consuming thought that jeez, nobody even tries to have any manners at all anymore.

Maybe that was just me?

It wasn’t the crowd’s booing that brought out the angry old cane-waving lady in me (though, as a friend rightly pointed out: “Only in Philly do people boo the free public performance …”). It wasn’t the gentle shoves. (That happens in every huge gathering; I’ve seen Easters where the church communion line has gotten  aggressive.) What pushed me over the edge was the people—countless people, many with bikes or strollers or panting, irritated dogs straining on their leashes—who needed to get by.

The pattern went like this: These people, mostly 30-somethings and younger, would come face to face with us, and then, for a millisecond, just stand there, expecting the human sea to part magically for them, and—with not so much as an “Excuse me,” or even eye contact—they would wait. It was like a weird, wordless game of chicken that my friends and I lost repeatedly, as we obliged, over and over and over, to almost no thank-yous and only the rare grateful glance.

On the ladder of etiquette (where the highest rung is reserved for British royalty, and the lowest is, say, not belching in meetings or running naked through the streets), I think excuse-mes are pretty low and basic, maybe around step three, as are pleases and thank-yous. But eye contact? That barely even qualifies as manners. That’s just a human interaction ritual, part of an ancient social exchange that acknowledges the existence of another person. And I’m afraid my generation—and those generations that follow ours—have come to be sort of horrible at that, at considering the existence of each other. To say nothing of considering each others’ sensibilities or comfort. (We, who whip out cell phones everywhere from the dinner table to the movie theater; we, who find any hint of formality in dining or dress codes almost offensively stodgy; we, who write emails instead of thank-you notes; we, who regularly talk politics and religion and sex and our children’s bodily functions on Facebook, the most public of public spaces; we—okay, I—who swear with gleeful abandon.)

“That’s it!” I thought, as I stepped aside a million times and waited (and waited) for the PIFA aerialists to get on their trapezes. “This isn’t the breakdown of manners, this is the breakdown of human interaction.” (Stare up at the sky for long enough and everything starts to seem really profound and huge after a while.)

So it’s probably not quite that bad. But you do hear a lot these days about how as we get more and more connected there’s less and less human interaction. I wonder if it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing that as a positive thing? Saying thank you to a stranger does, after all, take time and effort from our very busy, important lives.