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  • Writer's pictureLynn Denton

Musings on Manners

I read Real Simple magazine. I just like the title – the idea that I am trying to make my life more simple rather than complicated. I often tear out pages with useful tips – and then have to find a way to organize the pages!! Oh well….

In the June issue of Real Simple, there were several articles on politeness and manners. Call me old fashioned, but I often wonder about the state of manners in our society. I’m not talking about which fork to use at the dinner party, or when you can have your elbows on the table sort of manners (though I do enjoy the civility associated with this etiquette). I’m thinking more about the everyday, brief acts of kindness that we bestow upon others, and they upon us, especially when it involves people we don’t know.

I love it when a driver waits and motions to let me turn into traffic from a driveway or side street….just when I thought I would never be able to make that turn. This is kind and courteous. I love it even more when I am the person who lets someone else in….because sometimes I’m in too much of a hurry to be that person.

Basic courtesies like holding the door for the next person entering a building seem to be on the verge of extinction. How often have you seen someone drop the door without even checking if others are behind them? Are we aware of others around us?

Do you ever come out of a store or restaurant and make brief eye contact with someone coming in, and they smile and you smile back? Friendly. Connected. A moment.

Of course, you know where I am going to go next with this. Cell phone use has reduced our eye contact with others and our awareness of others around us. If someone is reading a text, or answering a call, they are concentrating on that, not on whether anyone is behind them or approaching them.

Eye contact is a way we connect with others – those we know, and those we don’t. They say that eyes are the window to the soul, and one interpretation of that expression is that the look in people’s eyes (happiness, surprise, anxiety, fear, etc.) can tell us much about how they are feeling. If you looked at a picture of a face with an expression, but if you can’t see their eyes, you would likely not be able to correctly guess the emotion the person is feeling.

A study of 14,000 college students presented at a recent Association for Psychological Science conference indicated that today’s college students are 40% less empathic than college students of 30 years ago. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and imagine how they might be feeling in a certain situation. Empathy comes from looking into people eyes to see how they are feeling, as well as noticing their body language and other cues. If you are not looking at them, you can’t read their eyes or expression. If you are sitting in a room with others, and everyone is looking at their screens, then expressions are not being read. We miss so many things by communicating in ways other than face-to face.

When we slow down and take more time to be polite to others, it makes us feel good. When someone does an act of kindness for us, it reminds us to “pay it forward” to the next person. And it works.

Our children learn from our example. They learn when we hold the door for someone pushing a stroller, let someone into traffic, greet and thank our mail carrier, let someone with two items go in front of us at the grocery store, bring a meal to a sick friend. They learn from us when we give them our undivided attention. They learn when we look at them, and they learn when they look at us. They subconsciously notice when we are in the moment with them and paying attention. They learn to be empathic from our example of “reading their faces.”

So while you are picking up that third fork on the outside left… some of your own musing on the subject of manners and see what you notice in the world out there. We can’t underestimate our individual power to make someone’s day a better one.

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