Public Manners

I am, from time to time, mocked, excoriated, and called a curmudgeon once I have expressed an opinion that seems not to match up with what some of my contemporaries have come to accept as normal, current modes of behavior in public. There is a list of things that we have to put up with in public places that will set me off. Mostly they have to do with the total abandonment of public manners, consideration of others in public places, and a complete sense of license on the part of perpetrators who feel that they have no responsibility to behave themselves when out among the rest of us.

Want a good example? The first one that comes to mind occurs at the increasingly loud tables of people who gather in restaurants. One voice grows louder and shriller as it attempts to out talk everyone else at the table. Then another voice takes up the challenge, and we, sitting nearby, are bombarded with even more screeching noise until their whole table raises the decibel level to somewhere above agony. Oh, it’s not only women, I hasten to say; men do it too, often urged on by the restaurant’s ‘background’ music which is too loud to begin with, providing a sports arena effect where people feel they have to compete with the ambient noise to make whatever point they are determined to drive home.

The result is chaos and cacophony for everyone and anyone close by, immediately eliminating the possibility of conversation at normal voice levels. Now, if you complain about this to your tablemates, you’re likely to be labeled a curmudgeon. So be warned.

This phenomenon in restaurants has become epidemic. One time in Florence, four American girls got so loud in a small restaurant there, that one patron went over to their table to ask them to tone down. They didn’t, of course, believing that it was their right to be loud, rude, and inconsiderate. That’s when I went over to their table. I reminded them that they were guests in a foreign country, that everyone in the place knew where they were from, and that they were giving the Italians a bad impression of American manners. That more or less did it.

I should never have had to speak to them about their behavior. I should have been able to rely on their upbringing and their sense of manners, but clearly they had not had much quality of either one.

These days, people mistake rights for license. It is everyone’s right to talk, to speak to others across a dining table. That right ends when the volume of those voices reaches the point where it extends past the table and annoys anyone nearby. The continuance of the noise is not a right; it is taking advantage of other people’s tolerance. That is license, attempting to get away with being an inconsiderate jerk.

Last week, my friend Ken and I were enjoying a lovely meal at Charisma, one of my favorite Italian restaurants. Ken had never been there, and had brought a splendid bottle of Montepulciano di Abruzzo for us to share. Fortunately, we were fairly well finished with our pleasant evening when in came two men and a woman who sat at the table to my right. She immediately set up a high shriek that she apparently thought of as laughter, more of a whinny, or neighing, reminiscent of the sound a horse would make. They were shortly joined by another woman who competed with the first one to produce as much racket as possible.

When I looked over, one of the men in their company told me that they were just having a good time, and that if we didn’t like it, we might go to another restaurant. Not an option. They were the interlopers, and prior to their appearance, the restaurant had been the scene of other couples quietly having dinner together.

It seems to me, and my memory isn’t all that faulty, that once not too many decades ago, we did observe manners in public. People who didn’t were thought to be making a scene, a shameful and disgraceful thing to do. People had some sense of decorum, and definitely a sense of avoiding being a pest or causing other people to have an unpleasant time. Babies used to be shushed when they babbled or wailed loudly, in restaurants or in church or anywhere else where they became a nuisance. Now we dare not do such a thing; we might permanently damage their egos and their sense of self expression if we insist that children be quiet and not bother other people.

The situation in contemporary society will only get worse, of that I’m sure. Since people have no manners of their own, they are ill-equipped to teach manners to their children. It’s the same phenomenon we often see in today’s classrooms, by and large. Teachers cannot teach what they do not know. Nor can parents.

I wish I had a remedy, but I don’t. Not long ago on the outside bar at Martinis, there congregated a loud—and getting louder—party of about ten people (men and women), fueled by ten-ounce martinis of various colors and potency. Four of us were sitting at the next table until I suggested that we go inside where things were quieter, and where we could at least talk to each other. We did that, but there was the palpable feeling that once again, I was being the old fuddy-duddy. So be it. I don’t care. I refuse to have my evening ruined by the inconsiderate noise from other tables. I don’t see why I should.

So call me what you will.

Your thoughts?

Robert Heylmun

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1 thought on “Public Manners”

  1. I agree. But more distressing to me than shouting in restaurants or on cell phones is the increasingly noisy chatter one hears before services at the Cathedral. It's not a football stadium, waiting for the game to start – but holy space and time for quiet reflection and collecting oneself for worship. Worse, the many people who don't take care to quietly, thoughtfully lower and raise the kneelers. Clunk, clunk, clunk throughout the house at one of the most solemn moments in liturgy!


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