Where have good manners gone?

  • March 22, 2009

{mosimage}TORONTO - From the catwalk to the classroom, former fashion model Judi Vankevich is a role model of good manners for kids.

Vankevich, a.k.a. the Manners Lady, is a mother of three and former beauty pageant contestant who says learning manners was a staple in her family when she was growing up in Mississauga.

“I realize that Canadians have a worldwide reputation for having good manners,” she said.

“I want to help Canadians re-earn that reputation and pass it on to the next generation.”

But it could be a losing battle as several etiquette experts say traditional manners and civility seem to be going out of fashion.

Prof. Pier Massimo Forni, who co-founded the Civility Project at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore 12 years ago, said there is a general perception that society is less well-mannered today.

So how did this happen? Many experts believe an increasingly busy world wired into TV, online social networking, iPods and BlackBerries has been causing a decline in social skills. What follows, they argue, is a decline in manners and civility.

“We don’t communicate face to face any more and have sort of lost that ability to communicate effectively,” said Louise Fox, etiquette coach for the TV show Style by Jury.

At the Williams household in Cobourg, Ont., web surfing and TV watching are infrequent past times for 10-year-old Sam and 12-year-old Emmy. Their mother, Helen, said turning off the television or computer means tuning into family.

According to several studies, the Williams family experience is increasingly rare.

In a February 2009 study in the British journal Biologist, Prof. Aric Sigman reported that children now spend more time at home in front of a computer or TV, to the point where TV is “displacing the parental role” and eclipsing “by a factor of five or 10 the time parents spend actively engaging with their children.”

With increased social networking among younger children, direct virtual interaction is replacing many forms of direct social interaction, the study suggested.

It also pointed to a trend of sparse family time.

“Couples now spend less time in each other’s company, more time at work, commuting or in the same house but in separate rooms using different electronic media devices.”

The study also noted an irony: as electronic media spreads and makes the private sphere “available in almost every sphere of the individual’s life,” it’s also leading to our physical and social disengagement from one another. We’re tuned into our iPods, but tuning out of the world around us.

Williams, a senior producer at CanadianParents.com , said limiting her kids’ onscreen and online time helps her and her husband answer their children’s inquiries about questionable behaviour on TV.

Add into the mix of our technological toys more stress in today’s world of deadlines, debt, corporate ladders and busy family schedules and there doesn’t seem to be any time to even consider social graces.

“As we rush in what is often a mad rush towards the attainment of our professional goals, we don’t have the luxury to slow down,” Forni said from Baltimore.

It also doesn’t help that in this “age of self,” there isn’t much value put into the idea of self restraint, he said. In addition, the technological revolution has led to the norm of anonymity. Forni said people are becoming less inhibited, saying or doing things in e-mails or cyberspace that they normally wouldn’t do in person.

Now, some say it’s time to return to basics and good old-fashioned family time.

“People don’t even have family dinners any more. (Kids) don’t learn about manners around the dinner table,” said Fox, owner of Etiquette Ladies in Toronto, which hosts etiquette seminars.

Cindy Post Senning, great granddaughter of 20th-century etiquette guru Emily Post and director of the Vermont-based Emily Post Institute , said the home is the best place to start learning about social skills.

“Like any skill, you have to practise them and learn them,” she said.

Having good manners can be good for you on many levels. For starters, Senning said in today’s economy, good manners can give a job applicant an edge over an equally qualified competitor.

And tuning out technology, learning more social skills and building closer family ties and social support can also have health benefits.

According to Sigman, too much time spent online can lead to social isolation, lack of social support and loneliness which, in turn, has been linked to diabetes, strokes, cancer and dementia.

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