A man on a crowded Long Island Rail Road train bellows
into his cell phone about his latest sexual conquest. A colleague, upset that
her computer crashed, drops the "F" bomb. A couple talks nonstop during a movie
- to each other and to the screen. Parents eat quietly at a restaurant while
their children run around the dining room.
There's no getting around rude behavior. It's everywhere, all of us have
been guilty of it at one time or another, and some say it's getting worse.
In a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll, 69 percent of 1,001 adults say
people are ruder today than they were 20 or 30 years ago. No big surprise
there. What is surprising, however, is after all this time, most people don't
know how to combat it.
In the same survey, 62 percent say they didn't ask someone they saw
behaving rudely to stop.
"We're living in a day and age where you never know how people are going to
react, if they're going to become violent or become confrontational," says
Jacqueline Whitmore, author of "Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for
Success at Work" (St. Martin's Press, $19.95).
Whitmore and other experts in etiquette and manners who are leading the
charge for a return to civility say the 1960s ushered in a more informal way of
interacting that has been exacerbated by the way modern technology tends to
insulate people from one another.
"We're all walking around in these little bubbles, talking on the cell
phone, listening to the iPod, watching a movie while we're walking and while
we're driving," says Thomas P. Farley, a senior editor at Manhattan-based Town
& Country magazine. Those who think good manners are important will find
kindred spirits among the writers in an anthology he edited called "Modern
Manners: The Thinking Person's Guide to Social Graces" (Hearst Books, $17.95),
one of several new books about etiquette and manners.
While those asked in the AP-Ipsos poll say rudeness is influenced by badly
behaved celebrities, athletes and public figures, rude behavior on television
shows and in movies and our own hectic lives, they fingered parents as the
biggest culprits for not teaching their children good manners.
Most people want to be well-mannered, but some have never been taught how.
Others are in desperate need of a refresher in proper etiquette. And if those
polled are any indication, most of us are saints in our own eyes, failing to
see the rudeness in ourselves that we so quickly point out in others. When
asked if they ever cursed in public, used a cell phone in a loud or annoying
way, got impatient with someone and spoke rudely to them or made an obscene
gesture at another person while driving, an overwhelming majority of those
asked say no.
It's not your job to be the manners police, experts say. For instance, how
do you stop someone from spitting on the sidewalk? And do you really want to
try to reason with someone who is showing signs of road rage? But there are
ways to respond when confronted with another person's rudeness. It's all in
your approach, experts say. Here are some of their ideas:
You could be praying, listening to actors on stage, riding the bus or in
the workplace, and suddenly someone popping gum shatters the silence, breaks
your concentration and raises the hairs on the back of your neck.
It could be a nervous habit, so don't be so quick to deem it rude behavior,
says Maximillian Wachtel, a licensed psychologist in Denver. "In one of those
situations, get the person's attention politely," he says. He suggests this
approach: "'Excuse me, ma'am. I'm enjoying this play, but I keep hearing you
pop your gum, and I was hoping you might stop doing that so the rest of us can
focus our attention.'"
If you work near a gum-popper and you can't take it anymore, you might
requisition a white-noise machine for your cubicle or ask to be moved, says
Leah Ingram, a Smithtown native now living in New Hope, Pa., who is a certified
etiquette and protocol consultant and author of "The Everything Etiquette
Book: A Modern Day Guide to Good Manners" (Adams Media Corp., $14.95).
"There's only so much you can do to change someone else," she says. "After
that you have to figure out your own coping mechanisms."
Someone seated near you - in a worship service, at a play, in class or at
work, for instance - is clipping his or her fingernails - or engaging in some
other grooming ritual usually reserved for the privacy of a bathroom at home.
Sometimes you need only give "the look" (you know the one), and the person
will stop. If not, you could try bringing it to the attention of someone in
authority, such as an usher, teacher or manager.
Some public grooming, such as a touch of lipstick or hand lotion, is fine,
says Peter Post, great-grandson of the late etiquette maven Emily Post, who is
director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt. "Anything else that's
personal grooming really ought to be done in the rest room or the bathroom."
A lighthearted approach, adding a dash of humor - handled politely and
appropriately, of course - could also work, Farley says. "You could say,
'Excuse me. You're probably not aware of this, but I notice that you're
clipping your fingernails during 'Othello,' and I actually got hit by one
flying through the air....'"
That's better, he adds, "than going over and saying, 'Would you stop doing
If the offender is someone you know, take him or her aside and address it
privately, says Post, author of three etiquette books, including his latest,
"Essential Manners for Couples: From Snoring and Sex to Finances and Fighting
Fair - What Works, What Doesn't and Why" (Collins, $21.95). He suggests trying
something like this: "Can I talk to you about something, Tom? I'm not sure that
you know that clipping your nails at your desk is affecting other people. If
the situation were reversed I would hope you would talk to me about this."
If nothing you do persuades the person to stop the rude behavior, you may
be left with only one option, Whitmore says. "Unfortunately, you may just have
to displace yourself and move to another location."
Cell phone abuse
Here's a situation that's become all too common: You're at a theater
watching a movie when someone's cell phone rings - or starts playing
Beethoven's Fifth Symphony or 50 Cent's "In Da Club" ringtone. Instead of
shutting it off (as instructed during the previews), the person starts carrying
on a loud conversation. (Of those polled, 55 percent say they frequently
encounter people using their cell phones in a loud and annoying way in public.)
"Many times, all it takes is a glance or a gentle, 'Excuse me,' and you
turn back and watch the movie," says Whitmore, who also is the cell phone
etiquette spokeswoman for Sprint and founder of National Cell Phone Courtesy
Month in July.
If neither approach gets the person to hang up, she suggests addressing
your complaints to the theater manager.
If you're reading on the subway and someone yammering into a cell phone
breaks your concentration, oblivious to those around him or her, you can do
what Manhattan resident June Weir did when the same thing recently happened to
"I said, 'Excuse me, but your conversation is so loud that it really is
very disruptive to those of us who are reading. Could you possibly keep it a
little softer?'" recalls Weir, an adjunct professor at New York University who
teaches a course in modern manners.
"Rather than shouting it out, I just went over and said it quietly to her,"
Weir adds. "I think she was surprised she was annoying anyone and surprised
anyone would say something to her."
You're on an airplane attempting to take a nap, but a child seated behind
you keeps kicking the back of your seat. (Of those polled, 44 percent say they
frequently see children acting rudely in public.) If the parent is there,
address the parent, experts say. "It's not a person's place to discipline
someone else's children when the parents are present," Whitmore says.
If the parents are not around, however, she suggests speaking directly but
politely to the child. "You could say, 'Excuse me, but I'm trying to sleep.
Would you mind not kicking my seat?'"
Oftentimes, though, a child is being obnoxious, at a restaurant, for
example, and his or her parents are not doing anything to stop it. Experts
agree it's best not to approach them yourselves, but in a nice and diplomatic
tone, tattle to the restaurant manager or maitre d'.
"You can say, 'I came here for a relaxing time. That child is out of
control and destroying the restaurant's ambience,'" says Weir. "If [the maitre
d' or manager] doesn't do anything about it or says, 'I can't do anything about
it,' this might be a restaurant you don't want to patronize," she adds.
This one is simple: If you're standing in line and another person cuts in
front of you, try this approach offered by Post: "Excuse me, but I was here
first. The end of the line is back there." If the person refuses, either
because he or she doesn't want to or acts as if he or she can't understand what
you're saying, ask to speak to the person in charge, Post and others agree.
Say you're standing in line at a deli, service has slowed to a crawl, and
another customer starts swearing within earshot of your young children.
(Forty-eight percent of those polled say they frequently hear others using rude
or offensive language in public.)
Wachtel suggests the "sandwiching" approach, which involves inserting a
criticism or request to end rude behavior between two compliments.
It would go something like this, he says: "Listen, I'm frustrated, too.
This is a really awful situation. I wish you would stop swearing because I have
my kids with me, but I certainly understand."
The key to sandwiching is to remain calm and to be sincere with the person
you're talking to, he adds. "Sandwiching works because it doesn't put the
receiver on the defensive. He hears you complimenting him and being nice to
him, and he is more likely to return the favor by giving you the gift of
complying with your request."