Are Manners Getting Worse?

Dear Helena,
I don't want to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I feel like things just aren't what they used to be. People are getting ruder and have less and less respect for those around them. They talk loudly on the phone in coffee shops, regardless of whether those around them want to hear about their dinner plans, adventures in online dating, or the bunion on their foot. Parents today apparently don't care to teach their kids manners, since they let them run wild in restaurants. I feel like modern etiquette is in decline. Don't you agree?
—Grumpy Old Man

Dear Grumpy Old Man,
People have been lamenting the decline of manners pretty much since Hesiod vetoed cutting your fingernails at the table, about 2,700 years ago (according to The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser). But I've been reporting from the front lines of etiquette for nearly five years, and I've got news for you: We're not getting ruder. We're getting more polite.

Exhibit A: increased respect for those on special diets. Once, many restaurants offered no vegetarian options, and if you asked the server which items were gluten-free, the reaction was a blank stare. Hosts didn't inquire about guests' dietary preferences in advance, and if you didn't eat, say, meat, your only option was to hide it in your napkin. Nowadays, it's OK to notify your host of your dietary quirks, and more often than not, your host will ask you if there's anything you can't eat. And if you tell a restaurant server you are gluten-free, he won't write you off as a total neurotic. He may even ask the kitchen to cook the rice pasta you've brought with you.

As for vegetarians and vegans, Alex Bury, a fund-raiser at the Humane Society of the United States, has noticed a dramatic improvement in how accommodating other people are. As recently as 1995, they were downright rude. "If I brought a veggie burger to put on the grill ... people would say, 'How could you eat that?,' make vomiting noises, or joke about 'killing a juicy animal.'" People often tried to argue her into eating a burger or steak. These days, hosts are usually happy to accommodate her or let her bring her own food. And vegetarians at formal dinners are no longer treated as second-class citizens, says Carla Ruben, owner of Creative Edge Parties in Manhattan and a caterer for 30 years: "Twenty years ago, the vegetarian was the kooky college nephew; nowadays it could be the chairman of the board."

Exhibit B: the decline in cigarette smoking. Once, people smoked in bars, restaurants, and even on airplanes. They smoked so much that Emily Post felt the need to point out that gentlemen should remove their cigarettes, cigars, or pipes from their mouths when speaking. Smokers usually asked permission when smoking in other people's homes, but they expected the answer to be, "Yes." "My mother always provided an ashtray," says Peggy Knickerbocker, author of Simple Soirees and a longtime hostess.

Today, smokers wouldn't even dare to ask. Sean Driscoll, owner of Glorious Food in Manhattan, has been in the catering business for 40 years. Whereas once smokers expected to light up inside, nowadays, he says, hosts pre-emptively refuse permission. "You can go into the foyer of someone's Park Avenue apartment and there'll be a huge bouquet of flowers, and leaning against it there'll be a sign saying, 'Thank you for not smoking.'" Now that smoking has been banned from restaurants and bars, it's easy to forget that there was a time when even nonsmokers came home with their clothes and hair saturated with the smell of cigarettes.

I anticipate many of you will disagree with me, and point out that rude cell phone behavior has increased, just as the culture of RSVPing and writing thank-you notes has deteriorated. These things may be true. But I believe etiquette exists primarily to show respect to our fellow humans and put them at ease. And what could be a more important way to do that than to accommodate their health and nutrition?

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