The Cult of Self and the Decline of Manners

Last weekend, we went to a party, one that marked a significant set of dates in the lives of some friends and one to which we were invited with a large engraved invitation.  I did note a phrase at the bottom which read, “Cocktail Attire.”  Now it may be that I come from a very conservative background, but to me that suggested a coat and tie at the very least, and apparel of a similar nature for my wife – which indeed we did wear. The event was catered and featured an array of excellent foods, from appetizers to deserts, and a range of beverages from water to expensive liquors and champagnes.  Each couple, or individual, was given a set of wineglasses with the dates and the symbols in gold lettering.

But frankly, I was appalled at what many of the guests wore – faded jeans and polo shirts, women in beach capris.  I will admit I didn’t see any tee-shirts and short-shorts, but that was more likely due to the fact that the temperature was in the high 60s than to the taste, or lack of it, on the part of some of those attending. At one point, a famed and world-class pianist performed… and almost no one listened or moderated their conversations, even after the host asked for quiet.

What was even more surprising to me was that none of those attending would have been considered less than substantial members of the community.  The guests included doctors, lawyers, accountants, university officers and professors, prosperous ranchers, business professionals, and the like.  Exactly what did perhaps a quarter of those attending fail to understand about “cocktail attire”?  And if they did not wish to dress for the occasion, there was no need to attend.  It certainly wasn’t even an indirectly compulsory event.

This sort of behavior isn’t limited to events such as these.  Even after warnings that cell phones, cameras, texting, and the like are prohibited at local concerts, there are always those who still persist in electronic disruptions – or other disruptions – of  performances, and despite stated policies against bringing infants to performances, there are still would-be patrons who protest.

All of these instances, any many more, reflect a lack of courtesy and manners.  Dressing appropriately for an event equates not only to manners, but also to respect for those giving the event.  Being quiet in an audience is a mark of respect for the performers.

So… why are so many people – especially those who, from their levels of education and professions, should know better – so ill-mannered and often disrespectful?  Part of it may be that, frankly, their parents failed to teach them manners.  Mostly, however, I think it is the growth of the cult of self – the idea that each person is the center of his or her universe and can wear what he or she wants whenever he or she wants to, can say what they like whenever they want.  Yet these same individuals can become extremely bellicose if anyone ever suggests that their behavior infringes on someone else’s freedom to speak, etc.  The parents who insist that their children be respected by a teacher are all too often totally disrespectful of the teacher. Then there are the citizens who demand that law enforcement officers be civil and respectful under the most trying of circumstances, but who are anything but that when stopped for traffic or other infractions.  Or customers who would bridle at the slightest hint of frustration by a sales clerk, but who have no hesitation about berating those clerks over matters beyond the control of the salespeople.

This goes beyond personal interactions as well, so that we have a political arena filled with name-calling, misrepresentation, and hatred.  I’m not saying that we should all agree, because we never will on all matters, but we might well have a more livable world if we remembered that not a single one of us is the center of the world and that shouting at someone is only going to make them want to shout back.  Manners were developed in order to reduce unnecessary conflict and anger, and it’s too bad that all too many people seem to have forgotten that.

21 thoughts on “The Cult of Self and the Decline of Manners”

  1. Joshua Blonski says:

    I have noticed that a lot of people seem to feel entitled to their every whim. It’s true that many people have no problem being rude to others, but then get offended when they are treated in the same way they treat others. I think a partial reason why manners are declining is that people do not perceive an obvious consequence for the lack of their own manners. It doesn’t break a law when someone is rude to another, and there are rarely direct consequences.

    It’s sad, and there definitely are consequences even if they are not immediately seen or felt.

  2. Derek says:

    This is just my opinion but… My father once explained to me, it was a time when I’d been particularly rude to him, that my behavior was inappropriate. He explained very convincingly and made me realize and remember the error of my ways. My father was able to do this without saying a word. You see, he’d backhanded me for being a snotty little brat. I was fifteen, far from a child who didn’t know any better.

    I was shocked when it happened, but I realized I’d crossed a line, and knew I’d never go that far again. In fact, I tended to be more respectful after that. My dad later explained to me, in words, that my grandfather would have beat the living tar out of him for behaving the way I had.

    I learned respect through trial and painful error. I do not advocate physical punishment, but I believe we must reflect on the principle of perceived consequences. Were it not for the consequences to my rude behavior, I would never have learned.

    Just an example, hope that helps.

  3. Joshua Blonski says:

    Oh, I strongly believe that discipline in the home (and at schools, despite that most people disagree with me on that one these days) is a good practice. And the occasional but warranted physical discipline when I was a child weren’t forgotten lessons either.

    I mean that a lot of people, as adults, see no direct consequences from rudeness toward strangers. As much as most of us have wanted to reach across the counter and backhand a terribly rude customer, we don’t do that. I’ve sometimes wondered if a real threat would guide people to be less rude. It’s not possible for me to see first-hand, but I wonder if socially accepted duels “back in the day” helped to curb rudeness. That would make for an interesting study.

  4. Michael says:

    Society has instilled in people the idea that there is no right and wrong, only the idea that as long as you are comfortable with your behavior, then it’s okay to do what you want.

  5. V True says:

    I was rereading Ethos Effect, and in it you include an “Exton Land” quote along the lines of the abscence of formality being a symptom/precursor to the abscence of ethics. My husband and I often lament that there are few occassions for which ‘formal dress’ is really needed. We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, fashionistas (ok maybe he is but definitely not me.) When I was much younger I read a novel in which a character lamented that people thought the lights, flowers, music and clothes at a party would make them brilliant and how hurt she was that celebrations were both shallow and hollow at the same time. I have a theory of my own (not stolen from my favorite authors.) I think that in large part this reflects some of the innate honesty that humans possess. They do not consider there persons to be valuable, therefore they don’t value the manner in which they present themselves. Rather than a disregard for the value of others it reflects a lack of value for themselves. Sadly I think this theory is probably overly optimistic, as it would indicate that the majority of individuals possess the potential for introspection.

  6. Michael says:

    I used the wrong than, didn’t I?

    1. Rob says:

      No sir, it was appropriate
      “I’d rather eat ice cream than brussel sprouts”
      “If you like ice cream, then go ahead and eat it.”

  7. Matt says:

    Your blogs are always so upbeat, LE! At least I enjoy your books. Looking forward to Imager 4.

  8. My blogs do tend to be critical… or to point out things that need fixing… and my books are where I often postulate ways of addressing those problems. That could be because it’s often far easier to identify a problem in a few hundred words than it is to come up with a workable solution. Simple and short solutions, unfortunately, no matter how attractive almost never work.

  9. Zelazny says:

    I always liked the quote from one of RObert Heinlein’s books that is along the lines of: “An armed society is a polite society” – currently we have no redress towards those who are rude or disrespectful in public, so there is no penalty for being so…

  10. hob says:

    You could argue that because America leans towards or the perception thereof of being a creative hub–individuality would be more valued in such a system.

    Rather than everybody has become ruder, perhaps everyone has mistaken following rules/manners/historic social norms as a sign of being too comformative and so actively try in key ways to avoid it.

  11. Your point about no redress about those who are rude or disrespectful in public is well-taken… but, alas, Heinlein’s point is no longer valid — at least not in the United States, since we’re now the most well-armed society in history… and it doesn’t seem to stop rudeness… or violence.

  12. hob says:

    Mr Modesitt, your job is to be creative. Perhaps your willingness to embrace formality arise from your lack of need to demonstrate you are an individual.

    1. That well may be, but rudeness and disrespect to others doesn’t demonstrate individuality, only individual boorishness.

  13. hob says:

    That is closer to reality.. you’re right, but maybe not in their minds?

    There is no difference between eating a cow or a dog. But one becomes agitated in a way that would appear rude to the one offering them dog meat in the west.

    As Zelazny and yourself in many of your writings have pointed out, if there is not the perception of gain or loss by being polite, why should people be polite?

  14. hob says:

    You’re right. Sorry

  15. The rise of “rudeness” among the intellectual class appears to be linked to a deficit in humility.

    I was commenting to some people this weekend that at a time in U.S. history when we seem to have more highly intelligent people on our hands than ever before, there is precious little wisdom to be found among that same group.

    I call it the, “Too smart for…” syndrome. Too smart for civility. Too smart for common sense. Too smart for all sorts of things my grandparents considered part and parcel of functional society.

    When people become infatuated with their own intellect, all sorts of undesirable results can occur.

    1. I suspect that’s because so many of them labor under the delusion that, because they’re intelligent, they’re somehow different from their predecessors… and they’re not, which is why so many of the mistakes of history get repeated in slightly different ways and forms.

  16. Well said, Lee. Well said.

  17. Griffin says:

    Your comments on manners and, more specifically, law enforcement, are so very appropriate, clear, and true they sting.

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