21st Century Etiquette: What Do the Experts Say About Modern Manners?

I’ve been sitting for over an hour on the runway at O’Hare International Airport. Next to me sits a man conversing on his cell phone, firing expletives to the person on the other end. This could be an episode of The Jerry Springer Show called “How I Dumped my Ex,” one that would be filled with the sound of beep, beep, beep. If it were a TV show, at least I could change the channel. Here, I’m a captive audience on a nearly full plane. I make up my mind to investigate cell phone protocol.

According to Letitia Baldrige, former Chief of Staff for Jacqueline Kennedy and author of over 20 books on manners and etiquette, “You don’t answer the phone ever in front of anybody. You don’t turn your cell phone on if you go to a party, play. . . . You never answer it in a restaurant. You never make a call in a restaurant. Excuse yourself to make a call, and if you must answer a call, excuse yourself again. Leave the table so others don’t have to stop and listen to you.”

As I spoke with Ms. Baldrige about cell phone protocol and etiquette in the 21st century, I began to understand that basically manners are about being kind, helpful, and courteous. “I think it’s a question of each one of us being aware of what’s going on around us….” she said. “When we go out the door of our homes, we need to be aware and be nice and be courteous. If you’re not paying attention because you’re so into your Ipod or Blackberry, you might miss somebody who needs help, even an old friend.”

Welcome Your Guests

Unfortunately, Ms. Baldrige says that one of the most prevalent changes in manners today is people’s lack of kindness. One of the biggest examples of this is when “people come into the workplace or a party and don’t greet everybody with the same affability. If you just ignore a newcomer or somebody who is not as important, that is so rude and cruel. Feelings get hurt.”

I remember attending a Super Bowl party where I vaguely knew a few people. Everybody else in the room was friends. Nobody introduced me. Being shy, which none of my friends believe, I sat mute most of the night. (Fortunately, I did better with the NBA playoffs).

How can this be rectified? Ms. Baldrige advises that when you go to a party and see someone standing alone, make an introduction. And in the workplace, treat people in the lower ranks with the same grace that you would treat the boss or the CEO.

R.S.V.P. to Invitations

Another change in today’s manners is in the lack of RSVPs. For those who don’t know, this acronym means “respond if you please.” Over the holidays I partied till I dropped, entertaining on four occasions. At each gathering I fretted over who would actually come and if I’d have enough food or too much.

Although fretting is routine for my parties, I could have done without the “how many are coming” aggravation so that I could have spent more time on something really important: deciding what to wear!

Ms. Baldrige comments on “the total rudeness in how we handle invitations. We say we are coming and we don’t show. Or, we say we are not coming and we show up with three more people. That happens all the time! It’s unbelievable!”

The remedy? This is the perfect opportunity to pull out your now infrequently used cell phone and call to say you’re coming.

Be Kind to Your Host & Hostess

Ms. Baldrige further advises that upon arrival at any social gathering, make sure to greet the host or hostess. As you leave, be sure to thank the evening’s organizer once again. If you really want to go the extra mile, you can call the next day to say how much you enjoyed the party (unless, of course, you sat mute all night!).

Recently, I was shocked when a friend dropped a note by my door to say how much she liked my party. And then I received an email from a friend thanking me for helping to chop vegetables for his party—he couldn’t have done it without me. We all like to be appreciated, and these small acts of kindness come back to us.

Mind Your Manners—Really!

Finally, when we are wining and dining amongst friends or business associates, we must remember our table manners. Many years ago I was sitting at a university faculty dining table when the mother of a young girl approached me. She told me that her daughter wanted to emulate my table manners when she grew up. Thank you, Mom, for teaching me to place my napkin on my lap, to use a knife to place those last bean sprouts on my fork, and to sit positioned so the food doesn’t have to jump long distance to get from the plate to my mouth.

You might ask, Why bother? Well, picture this. You are sitting at a restaurant with your date or business associate. Suddenly, you watch this person use his fingers to push creamy alfredo onto his fork, and then clean his fingers with his lips. This actually happened to me! Would I want to see this act repeated? If your boss sees this, he may not send you on that Honolulu cookout to win over a potential client; instead, he may hold you back until you take a remedial etiquette course.

Wherever you go, remember this important point on dealing with bad table manners or any other type of bad manners: “Never embarrass him or her in front of other people. If he or she has done something awful, you tell this person after the whole thing is over,” Ms. Baldrige suggests. In most instances, a person will be grateful to learn how to correct a mistake when done in private.

Courtesy & Kindness

Other manners that are often neglected today are courtesies such as giving your seat to an elderly person who is standing or opening the door for someone. In New York City, I am always shocked when I see older people standing on the buses and subways while younger people sit.

When it comes to dating and who pays, holding the car door open for a woman and helping her with her coat, etc., Ms. Baldrige encourages the more traditional lines of chivalry. While this can’t be expected these days, she advises adopting a basic rule of always helping the other person. If you find that some of these acts feel awkward, but you’d like to help someone with a coat or a car door, then do so anyway.

Shelly Lachman, who co-teaches “Refined Living and Home Management” at the Ideal Girls School in Fairfield, offers another reason for cultivating courtesy toward others. “These types of behaviors such as holding a door open are expressions of something cultured inside you: kindness, helpfulness,” she says. “Expressions on the surface are marks of feelings cultured on the inner level.”

Ms. Baldrige explains that “the rule of thumb in manners is to help whoever needs help. Look around you and see what’s going on and react. If a disabled person’s having trouble getting through a door, you rush to help. If an old lady drops something in the street, even if she’s a bag lady, you rush to pick it up. It should be instinctive.”

Will proper manners benefit you? Ms. Baldrige says definitely yes. “Your own behavior is on display and influences everyone you come in contact with. People will want to emulate you, and that’s leadership. Leadership is very contagious when it’s on display.”

If you wish to be a leader and be noticed by friends and business associates, try these tips on good manners. And remember, “Do unto others as you would have them do onto you!”