We seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of rude behavior, with three high-profile recent examples in three different fields of endeavor — though, interestingly, all involving people with last names starting with “W.” At the State of the Union address, Congressman Joe Wilson expressed his differences with the President not by writing an op-ed or giving an interview but by yelling out “You lie!” in the middle of the speech. Tennis star Serena Williams got into an argument with the line judge at the U.S. Open that included an ugly, profanity-laced threat. And at the MTV video music awards, rapper Kanye West interrupted teen country and pop star Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for best female video to tell her that hers was not as good as Beyonce’s.
Perhaps one key to this trend can be found in the fact that all three of these incidents and the round of awkward and grudging apologies received the kind of press coverage we used to reserve for a royal wedding, while an act of supreme graciousness and courtesy received almost none. West, who in the past has been notoriously rude at award shows when someone else won an award he thought should have been his, this time interrupted Swift to tell her that while her video was fine, “Single Ladies” by Beyonce was better. Beyonce, sitting in the audience, looked aghast. But then, in a moment that would have been considered too outlandish for a movie, Beyonce won the top award of the night, video of the year. She went up to the stage, impeccable in attire and bearing as always, and turned the stage over to Swift.
What do these incidents teach our children? In movies, on television, and in the media we see rude behavior rewarded with laughter, attention, and even plaudits for “honesty.” Manners and courtesy are words that seem old-fashioned these days and concepts that seem all-but forgotten.
I believe that one of a parent’s most important responsibilities is teaching children the importance of courtesy. Yes, that includes which fork to use and passing the salt and pepper together even when only the salt is requested. And yes, it includes a hand-written, prompt, and specific thank you note for any gift, hospitality, or special kindness. But mostly courtesy is about showing the kind of respect and dignity that will benefit not only the recipient but the person who provides it. The simple rules of courtesy are a road-map that will give children and teenagers confidence and poise. And a big advantage in interviews for school and jobs, too.
I’m going to be posting a list of good movies to help families initiate conversations about respect, manners, and courtesy. Stay tuned.