Of flames and forks

The flaming email — we’ve all received them.  We might even admit we’ve sent one.  Maybe not a flame that rages like a “Howler” in Harry Potter, but certainly one that smolders.  While we think of internet flames as caustic remarks on public message boards, PC Magazine defines to flame as “to communicate emotionally via email.”  If that’s the case, I’m definitely guilty of flaming, as are some people who have emailed me without pausing to re-read or reconsider before hitting “send.”  Numerous publications have explored the flame phenomenon, including Wired and the New York Times. Flaming arises in part due to a key problem with the email genre — namely, the brain’s inability to discern “tone” in the absence of facial and voice cues. To me, however, email flames are more than poor “netiquette:” they reflect how manners are changing not only in our cyber-communities, but also in our “real time” relationships.

I  bristle when I enter a bistro or church service, and I see a man wearing a baseball cap.  While I realize such behavior is ubiquitous and even accepted in our culture, it still bothers me.  I can’t help it: I was raised in the South at a time when gentlemen removed their caps while attending church or dining inside.  They opened doors for ladies – didn’t just hand off door handles like relay batons to females entering behind them.

Yet I wonder, what IS it that causes us to “forget” our manners?  Are we in too much of a hurry?  Consider, for example, the school carpool line.  Drivers actually try not to recognize each other.  Allowing a car to merge ahead of you is a sign of weakness, as is a wave of thanks from the “merger” to the rare person who lets her merge.  It’s the driver’s job, after all, to stay isolated and maneuver as quickly as possible to her destination.  Parking lots are another area where we exercise questionable etiquette. “Getting ahead” doesn’t necessarily jibe with “following the rules.” Do we think our wealth excuses us from having to put others ahead of ourselves?  The Camry driver might search unsuccessfully for parking at a crowded mall, finally opting to park far away.  But the Maserati owner parks in the fire lane.  Our world moves at a fast pace, and manners, it seems, are for “the little people.”   Moreover, they tend to slow one down.

For example, earlier this month the New York Times Magazine ran a piece called “The Tire Iron and the Tamale,” a Good Samaritan story where the only people who stopped to help a stranded motorist were Mexican immigrants, a.k.a. “little people.”

You ask, “But aren’t a lot of manners plain nonsense?  I mean, who cares which fork you use first?  At least you’re using a fork, and not picking up your chicken to gnaw the bone.”  Yes, that’s true.  But the real point of manners goes beyond formal place settings: it lies in putting others ahead of yourself.  Giving your seat to an elderly person.  Showing respect for people and their institutions.  Helping out a fellow human being, even if it’s in a small way.

That might seem trite, and I admit that the connection between putting a napkin in one’s lap and serving humankind is tenuous.  Technology also plays a role in our changing mores: things like printed invitations and hand-written thank-you notes seem outmoded in an era of Evites and text messaging.

But the “manners package,” so to speak, reminds an individual that he or she is not the center of the universe.  Some aspects may seem antiquated, but they ease over rough situations and can even help cheer you up by helping you focus on someone else for a moment.

Now, please pass the pepper – but make sure it “travels together” with the salt!

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