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Manners, in a manner of speaking

June 25, 2010
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Back in the peak of the Schizophrenic Sixties, a famous quote about young people made the rounds.

It seemed to explain the roots of that Great Sixties' Curse, the generation gap, which was then laying to waste the domestic tranquility of a nation raised on the familial joys of Ozzie and Harriet, Donna Reid and other such hypes.

The quote: "The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their eldersThey no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and are tyrants over their teachers."

What made it so noteworthy was it was attributed to Socrates, as recorded by Plato. It was quoted in a book called "Personality and Adjustment" by William L. Patty and Louise S. Johnson, experts on personality and adjustment, whatever that means.

Anyhow, it spread like wildfire. And how could it not? It was the duct tape of conventional wisdom, fully covering both the good and bad news.

The bad news was young people of the '60s were acting like monsters because they always had. And if they drove Socrates nuts, there was nothing we lesser intellects could do about them either.

The good news? Since ill-behaved teens were always the norm, so too were well-adjusted, productive adults (after all, the adults who despaired about the freakish teens were perfect role models themselves, weren't they?). So the only thing to do was be patient and wait till all the tie-dyed, bell-bottomed, pot-smokin', free-lovin' whack-jobs got into The Real World. Because once they did and they got jobs, families, debt, Rotarian membership and all those other delights of adulthood, then THEY'D have to deal with the next round of Hormonal Hoodlums.


All of which got me wondering: Are today's youth better behaved, worse behaved, or the same as my generation?

Of course, that's impossible to answer. But let's get brutally honest - if I wrote only about what I know, my career as a weekly columnist would've ground to a halt after the first month.

It's safe to say today's young people don't model the manners of my generation's. Then again, why would they? Manners were a huge deal in the 50s - so much so that, almost every home had an etiquette book and almost every newspaper had a regular column on manners. There were even T.V. shows hosted by the likes of Amy Vanderbilt.

A lot of that advice was about table mannersand a lot of it was ridiculous.

For example, you should cut meat only one bite-sized piece at a time, never all at once. Also, if you cut the meat with your right hand, holding the fork in your left, you then had to put down the knife and shift the fork to your right hand, in order to "properly" eat the meat.

You never put your elbows on the table, and using a dessert fork for your salad was a gaffe akin to showing up at the dinner table in a loin cloth.

And speaking of salad: You weren't supposed to cut lettuce with a knife, nor were you ever to eat the parsley garnish that came on your steak. Forget that fresh parsley tastes good and even cleanses the palette - the stuff was off limits, except maybe to a troglodyte.

Then there were the manners with adults, which were drilled into our heads almost from infancy. I remember one of my first days in first grade. We were all lined up in the hall, probably getting a much-needed bog break, when Ken Wilson, the superintendent of schools, came by.

"Good morning, children," he said.

"Hi!" we all shouted in high-spirited innocence.

"No!" snapped Miss Starr, our teacher. "You do not say 'hi' to an adult. You say, 'Good morning, Mr. Wilson."

After we'd repeated it twice, a beaming Mr. Wilson took his leave, secure in the knowledge that on his watch no rude little rotters would ever flourish, let alone even survive, in the Petrova school.

And so it went, reinforced by parents, teachers, boy scout leaders, ministers and just about any adult who felt they were being dissed. The gulf between child and adult was vast, and insurmountable: We could be friendly and all that as long as we observed the accepted protocols. And if we didn't, we found out immediately.

Adults were always addressed by their title - Mr. Miss, Mrs.- never by first name. The greeting for adults was "hello," never "hi." And when asked how you were, you always replied, "Fine thanks. And you?" - even if that morning the doctor'd said you had 24 hours to live.

Hats were never worn indoors. You held doors open for your elders and for females. You stood up when an adult came in a room. And on and on.


OK, so much for my generation. How about the current one?

Well, my greatest contact with young people is with my students, and I can say they behave very differently from when I was a student, or even from the students I had 25 years ago.

For one thing, they're a lot more informal. Almost no students call me mister anymore. Instead, they call me by either my first or last name either of which is now considered perfectly appropriate. In fact, calling a teacher by their last name is usually meant affectionately.

"Hello" instead of "hi"? I'm lucky if I get a "hi." Usually it's "hey," or "hey there," or "yo." And not only am I not shocked, but I'm not even surprised by a "Sup, dawg?"

Hats are worn indoors, and if a kid stands up when I come in a room it's because he was about to leave it.

So today's kids are worse than they were a generation ago, right?


To use the old cliche, it's like comparing apples to oranges. Or perhaps in this case, watermelons to kumquats.

Sure, they're a whole lot more loosey-goosey than the students I had a few decades ago. But for all their informality, they work as hard and are as friendly and helpful as any bunch I ever had. And perhaps due to increased informality, I may get along with them better than I did with the old school students.

Maybe the acid test is how well they behave during class. In other words, does this bunch interrupt more, act out more, space out more, insult more than the others? The answer is, "No." They behave just fine, and when they misbehave and get chastised for it, they respond appropriately.

So I'd have to say while today's students behave differently from the past's, they behave just as well, if not even better, perhaps because they're not as restricted and repressed, and thus less prone to being passive-aggressive.

But I'll tell you one thing about The Good Old Days: That Socrates' quote? It always seemed weird to me. Socrates was a freethinker of the highest order and he encouraged his students to be freethinkers. So why, I wondered, would he be getting his toga in a twist if kids crossed their legs or didn't stand, or any of the rest?

And the answer is he didn't. Scholars have looked long and hard to find it, but haven't been able to. So, that piece of ancient history and timeless wisdom that drove a nice fat wedge between child and adult, was never said by Socrates, never recorded by Plato, and for all we know, first appeared in 1967, in Patty and Johnson's book.

All of which means that 40 years ago, while some young people may have been more scrupulous with their manners, some adults were much sloppier with their research.



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