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Rules of Etiquette Change to Meet Need - 2003-06-27

If you asked Americans a few decades ago for examples of bad manners, they might have mentioned refined points of etiquette, like using the wrong fork for their dinner salad. So what do Americans consider to be rude behavior today?

"Aggressive drivers, the way they holler and use profanity while they're driving. People who don't say excuse me, interrupt, step on your feet and don't say they're sorry. I think people who don't answer your phone calls. It's an easy enough thing to do, but it's rare enough that when someone does answer your phone call it seems like they're being extra responsive. On the daily commute train there are often people using space for 3 people as one and making it into an office with their lap top computers and their coffee and their book bag. Cell phones, because people don't know how to talk on them. They talk really loud. And we don't care what their conversation is about."

Caroline Tiger addresses those and many more ways people can offend or annoy others in a new book called How to Behave: A Guide to Modern Manners for the Socially Challenged. She's an editor and reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer who's had ample opportunity to research her book around her own city. In a recent interview with VOA's Nancy Beardsley, she said she wanted to focus on how Americans treat one another in everyday interactions.

Caroline Tiger: "It's not so much about the formal etiquette any more as the fact that I think these days people are really busy and are just rushing around from work to the supermarket to the next appointment and the next meeting, and don't have time to stop and think about some of the things they're doing."

Nancy Beardsley: "So our definition of what's good manners really has changed in the 21st century?"

Caroline Tiger: "Oh yes. Now it's just about being considerate and being kind. It's no longer something that is a class distinction."

Nancy Beardsley: "Let's talk first about one of the most pervasive etiquette questions these days, at least from my perspective, and that's cell phones. How do we use them in a way that's polite and considerate?"

Caroline Tiger: "Well, first you have to assess where you are. And if you're in a public space, you want to be aware that there are people around you, and that they may not want to listen to your 20 minute conversation about what you did the night before. I think it's a good rule of thumb to keep it short and keep it quiet."

Nancy Beardsley: "And are there places where cell phones should absolutely never be used?"

Caroline Tiger: "Oh, definitely. I don't really think people should use them in a train, or they should only use them if absolutely necessary in a train or other mass transit. And most definitely at the movies or at the theater, cell phones should be turned off."

Nancy Beardsley: "Now another phenomenon of recent years is the work cubicle, as opposed to the traditional four walled office with a door, and you have a number of rules for being a good cubicle neighbor. What are some of the most important?"

Caroline Tiger: "Remember that cubicle walls are not actual walls. They resemble fabric more than an actual wall, and noise travels pretty easily through them. So you want to keep your voice down, be aware of your neighbors. You also want to keep personal calls to a minimum, because your neighbor can probably hear everything you're saying and may not want to."

Nancy Beardsley: "And then there are e-mails, which I think most of us dash off without thinking much about them. But what are some of the concerns we should have when we're writing e-mail?"

Caroline Tiger: "You want to check and recheck who it's addressed to before you send it, because I think everybody has had it happen to them where they send the wrong thing to the wrong person. It also depends on who you're writing to. If it's a business e-mail you want to use the right punctuation and grammar and treat it as you would a regular business letter that's on paper."

Nancy Beardsley: "And what about those mass forwards we all get, either from friends or people we don't know at all?"

Caroline Tiger: "Right. It's kind of the cyber version of the old chain letter. Those should be kept to a minimum. I think everybody has so much spam and junk mail clogging up their in-boxes these days that the last thing they want to get is a forwarded story or a list of jokes, because chances are they're not going to have time to read it, and will just delete it and be annoyed you sent it in the first place. So think before you send. Maybe a good rule of thumb is count to ten before you hit the send button."

Nancy Beardsley: "And speaking of counting to ten, you also write about anger management and road rage. How do we avoid it ourselves, what can we do to avoid being one of those aggressive drivers?"

Caroline Tiger: "Road rage is as symptom of everything else going on in your life. It's a product of not feeling in control, so you might want to put on some classical music or some kind of music that relaxes you, practice some deep breathing while you're sitting there to calm yourself down, and do not do anything that might anger somebody, because you never know what their reaction is going to be."

Nancy Beardsley: "You also have sections for entertaining and going out, and one that I found especially interesting were all the rules for the ethnic restaurants we have in the United States. What are some of the things we should keep in mind when we're dealing with an unfamiliar language or unfamiliar foods?"

Caroline Tiger: "You don't want to butcher the language, so if they have the English option of the dish you want to order you should use that instead of trying to speak in another language if you don't really know how. If you are there with a date who's trying to show off by using his high school French, and he's not communicating well with the waitress, you might want to give him a subtle hint and tell him he needs to brush up and maybe take the three-day language immersion course you saw in the newspaper."

Caroline Tiger: "And speaking of dates, in these days of male, female equality, how do we deal with the question of who initiates the date and who pays?"

Caroline Tiger: "That really depends on the person again. As you said, these are days of gender equality, and the woman can ask for the date as well as the man. I think whoever has initiated the date should be the person who pays for the date."

Nancy Beardsley: "How about you personally. Is there any one kind of rude behavior that especially irritates you?"

Caroline Tiger: "I think it would be umbrella etiquette - the section called Rain Rage that is in my book, where people have these huge golf umbrellas that could fit a family of five and they're walking down a crowded sidewalk, a city sidewalk, and taking up the whole space. That was really what pushed me to write this book."

Nancy Beardsley: "Caroline Tiger. Thank you very much. Caroline Tiger is the author of How to Behave. A Guide to Modern Manners for the Socially Challenged.