Mannersism How Etiquette may be the Next Avantgarde

Where have all the manners gone? Three things give rise to my query. First, the failure of folks day by day to just say thank you for an act of kindness or generosity. Second, as reported in the New York Times recently, the dilapidated sportsmanship of more than the usual handful of spoiled Olympic athletes who just can't grasp how they could lose or why bible-thick Omaha steaks aren't steaming away on every streetcorner in Turin. For heroes like them.

And third, the rancorous mooing between herds that is the picture of current cultural discourse. Did someone say fair mindedness? What purple critter are you? A left-wing pundit (could just as well have been a conservative one) recently extolled the virtue of passion while defending an instance of clearly barbaric personal assault. We have a new it word, I suspect. Passion.

A blanket exoneration of every kind of stupid, well, mooing. Shake hands. Back in ancient high school, that long ago, I threw discus and shotput. Hated losing, loved to win. Of course we want our team to be the best, but isn't it also in our national interest to field a team of competitors who are exemplary offspring of that responsible freedom we herald as mankind's highest ideal? Athletes as fair and generous in spirit as they are ruthless in competition? I'd send every athlete who wants to represent his or her country to a month of etiquette classes.

This is how you shakes hands. This is when you shake hands. OK, maybe not the most dazzling form of athletic dexterity, but essential nonetheless. Make the penalty for rotten behaviour severe.

The Tipping Territory. About passion, it's over, I think. At least as a euphemism for the simplistic one-track thinking, or fundamentalism, of current political, intellectual and cultural debate. I'd like to think so, anyway. I'd like to think that, just as Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point ushered in an optimistic new way to think about change, we are ready for a brand new territory where civility governs passion, where people are free to think for themselves and where we actually listen to and consider alternative points of view. A non-left, non-right territory capable of fresh ideas.

Less emphasis on being cool or on being righteous, those identical twins, and more on being interesting. See, good manners have a very pragmatic, even avant-garde potential. They open up fresh space for new ideas, new ways of thinking. They usher in that most radical of subversives, optimism. If someone is polite to you, you listen. Listening in turn invigorates and reshapes your own thoughts.

If someone is shouting at you, hey, you shout back in the same cliches you alway use to shout back. Etiquette classes for all of us. What a chimera, etiquette classes for young athletes. How about this, then. Etiquette classes for all of us. And every five years, a refresher course.

Airline pilots update their skills regularly. Rough weather, emergency situations, drastic loss of altitude are no less frequent in the skies of day-to-day life and updating the social skills to navigate through them smoothly, graciously may not be such a bad idea. Thank you. Two words. One syllable each. We're not talking elocutionary figure skating here.

Simple, simple, simple. A handwritten note, into the envelope, on goes a stamp and you have sent a huge bouquet of goodwill into the world. Better yet, forget the stamp and just tuck it under your wife's coffee cup.

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