Michael Herrick

Bad manners even you may be guilty of

Anyone who knows me will insist I admit that I’m not the politest person around, but I still like thinking and even writing about good and bad manners, first because I should try to do better myself, and also because I just like the ritual and formality of it all. I think the older you get, the more you enjoy elaborate traditions that may not have made much sense when you were younger. Conventions are occasionally constricting and burdensome, but some do us no harm and yet give us a feeling of connection and community, and I think the traditions I like the most are the ones that are the most arbitrary.

Those more gracious and refined traditions we might call by the name of “courtesy” and I’ll write about some of my favorites in a future article. They’re the fussy little rules about which fork goes where and they can be fun to observe provided we don’t take them too seriously. Courtesy can be pleasant to practice, but socially speaking, it’s just the fine, glossy finish; the real sandpapering-down of our splintery selves we call good manners, which you can’t neglect without running a grave risk of annoying, embarrassing or alienating your fellows.

Other pet-peeve cataloguers have documented manners so egregious that they’re not even worth setting down since the only offenders are obviously so little civilized that not even their literacy can be confidently assumed. Such essays reach not the perpetrators but only the victims of bad manners, who would probably read rather less than more about the trousered apes who broadcast thumping music from their cars, spit on the sidewalk, or make hideous messes in public toilets. The chief advantage to compiling such lists is that you can vent a little spleen without courting a charge of priggishness, since most readers can be depended on to side enthusiastically with your denunciations of nose-picking, queue-jumping, and almost anything to do with mobile phones.

There’s no point trying to teach manners to boors, but those of us who actually care about such things can sometimes benefit from a discussion. I’ve made a list, not of outrageous offenses, but of simple yet important manners that many folks — even you and I — too often overlook.

Skipping the introductions

Want to make people feel uncomfortable and awkward? It’s not hard.

I’m always running into people I know in public places and stopping to say hi. If I have a friend with me, I introduce them as soon as possible after the first greeting, and that gets the introductions moving and everyone feels good. But if I’m alone, and the person I’m greeting is in company, eight times out of ten, they’ll dive into a conversation with me, completely ignoring the friend sitting with them.

That makes us all squirm. The ignored friend doesn’t want to interrupt a conversation, and since he probably doesn’t even know what we’re talking about, it’s awful hard for him to join in, let alone jump in. But for my part, I don’t really want to usurp my friend’s prerogative to conduct the introductions, and by the time it becomes clear that they’re going to shirk the whole thing, it’s too late for me to do anything gracious. Eventually, someone has to break in and force an introduction. The newcomer usually looks relieved, but now we’ve offended our common friend by drawing attention to his lapse, usually provoking an effusion of loud apologies. It’s a no-win situation.

The rule is simple: when you’re in company, and you see someone you know, you greet your acquaintance and then immediately get everyone introduced. Quite immediately. Usually you know whether your various acquaintances know one another or not, but even if you’re not sure, it’s much better to be interrupted with an “Oh, we’ve met before,” than to let folks squirm.

That’s the essential rule you have to follow if you want to avoid blatant rudeness. But there are also some gracious traditions that you can follow to be truly courteous. In most situations, the most important tradition is that you generally introduce the gentlemen to the ladies. It’s old-fashioned and sexist and wonderful. So if you’re with your wife and run into a male friend at the coffee shop, you greet your friend, then (almost immediately) turn to your wife and say, “Dear, this is my friend Dave. I’ve told you about Dave. He’s in the softball league with me.” If you want to be formal, you can then present your wife to Dave, or they can just start shaking hands and your wife can introduce herself, saying, “Hello Dave, I’m Lisa.” You’ve gotten them introduced, you’ve done it graciously, and as a nice bonus, you’ve given just a little background about your friend, a conversational gambit that a courteous person can take up and run with: “Nice to meet you Lisa. Your husband throws quite a fastball.” You haven’t just done an introduction, you’ve greased the social gears by giving everyone a shared context that they can start talking about. Great job.

There used to be a sticky point about meeting ladies: will she or won’t she? Shake hands, that is. Lately, I’ve been observing that most women are quite ready to offer proper handshakes, and I think it would be a good thing for all women to be assertive about extending their hands when being introduced. It smooths things over and we men will silently thank you for your kind condescension.

Not even trying to remember names

Everyone thinks they can let this slide if they only protest their own incapacity. “I’m terrible at names!” Please. Never say this again. No one is terrible at remembering names. And no one is particularly good at it either. The difference is, some people try.

Remembering names is hard and there is no shame in saying, “I’m sorry, would you please remind me your name?” Never apologize more than that and please don’t draw further attention to the lapse by shouting “I’m terrible at names!” And another tip: if you need to ask for a name, do it sooner rather than later. I frequently let that slide and now I have a barber and a bartender whose names I’m trying to re-discover surreptitiously. But it’s been weeks now—months, actually, for the barber—and I’m kicking myself for it.

The key to remembering names is just to pay attention. It’s all too easy to let the introductions slide by and jump into a conversation, but you’ve got to make a point of noticing that name. Address your new acquaintance by name when you’re introduced. Repeat the name to yourself mentally while you’re looking at and listening to them. Maybe address them by name once or twice during the conversation, if you can work it in. Certainly, when parting, be sure to address them by name as you offer the nice-to-meet-you.

One thing I’ve tried to do is to pull out my notebook after meeting someone and just jot their name down. The simple act of writing makes it more likely that I’ll remember it, and since my notebook is also like a diary with dates, I can theoretically flip back through the pages at a later date and find the name if I know I’m going someplace where I’m likely to see them again. I don’t always do this and it doesn’t always work, but it does seem to help.

The politest person I’ve ever met when it comes to remembering names is my neighbor. He’s a retired journalist, a profession where remembering names is an important skill, and when he introduced himself to me, he also gave me a couple little mnemonics taken from literature and music to help me out. Then, when I told him my name, he stopped everything, and made remembering my name his top priority. “Michael. Well, that’s easy enough. Like Saint Michael the archangel, eh?” I nodded. “Now Herrick, Herrick. Oh my, how are we going to remember that?” “Well,” I said, “there’s the poet, Robert Herrick.” “Robert Herrick!” He beamed. “Gather your rosebuds! Very good. Michael Herrick.” And he made me feel like the most important thing that had happened to him all day.

I’m not saying you need to make quite such a production out of it (my neighbor is completely charming and can get away with anything) but that’s why you have to remember names. You don’t get to be “terrible” at it. Remember people’s names and make them feel important.

Accommodating latecomers

It should go without saying that being late is rude. There are cultures that take a more relaxed attitude towards schedules than ours does and there may be a lot to be said for their customs, but in our culture — even in New Mexico, the land of carpe mañana —being late is bad manners. And of course, most offenders are chronic offenders.

It’s not always a big deal. What do I care if you always miss the first five minutes of the concert (provided you’re not climbing over me to get to your seat)? What really drives me crazy isn’t necessarily the tardiness itself but rather the rudeness of other people who insist on accommodating and enabling the latecomers.

This mostly comes up in the context of business meetings. Of the various meetings I attend during the month (and I have a lot fewer to go to than most professionals do), I think none can be counted on consistently to start on time. The person running the meeting almost invariably delays starting for five, ten or even fifteen minutes to give all the expected (or even just theoretical) attendees a chance to show up.

Admittedly, it is sometimes necessary to hold up the start of a meeting for important attendees. And if you’re a critical part of my meeting — and you call me to let me know you’re running late — I might choose to delay a meeting when I really have to. But by and large, delaying a meeting or a performance or a departure to accommodate latecomers is just rude to the people who took the trouble to arrive on time. When you keep five people waiting ten minutes for that one latecomer, you’ve just wasted an hour of time. People resent it and they start to wonder why they bother being punctual. If you keep it up, they’ll stop bothering.

When I run a meeting, it starts on time. If you arrive late, I will expect you to slip pretty silently to your seat, keeping greetings and apologies to a minimum. If you get lost and confused because you missed some background information we covered five minutes ago, I’m not going to fill you in. And if you ask me to recap, I’m probably going to suggest instead that you hook up with someone after the meeting, maybe even with me, to get briefed on the info you missed.

That may sound a little harsh and maybe even rude, but remember: you’re the one who came late!

Bonus Pet Peeve: Staking out the aisle seat

I didn’t really want to mention this one but it bugs me so much I just can’t resist.

I’m not talking about general-admission airplanes (ugh) and theaters, where I expect a little dog-eat-dog and jockeying for the best seats. I’m talking about church. Sort of the last place I want temptations to grumble about my fellow man.

But it happens at church, just like anywhere else, and at church it’s those parishioners (almost always older ones; I don’t know why) who anchor themselves like concrete bookends onto the edges of the pews, forcing those of us who arrive later (but still on time) to clamber over them to a seat in the middle. What is so desirable about that aisle placement, I have no idea. Why they find it so much more alluring than scooting their butts over the smooth wood to the middle of the pew is something I will never understand.

But whatever the appeal, you’d think it would get just a little tarnished as I shepherd my stone-footed, stumbling family of six, all ass and crotch, over their knees to the only spot they’ve left us way over in the middle of the pew (before we run into the senior citizens parked at the other end).

First in the pew? Your place is the middle. Give the rest of us a sporting chance.

Everyone has their list

Writing a list like this makes you pretty uncomfortably aware of how little-qualified you are to do any such thing. The comments section below could very well swell with a lot of unpleasantly personal testimony about my own wretched behavior. I’ll just plead youthful ignorance or exuberance and hope no one remembers any stories of too recent a provenance. As I said before, age certainly seems to have something to do with our attitude towards manners. I suppose that once you outgrow being one of the “kids-these-days” the oldsters are always griping about, it falls to you to take up the grouchy old manners baton or the whole damned world is going to fall down around our ears. I would love to hear your own (gently anonymized) pet peeves in the comments.

Update

I’ve recently managed to solve my . I wormed the barber’s name out of a fellow patron, which was maybe a little sneaky, but the bartender problem had a most honorable resolution: he asked to be reminded of my name, and then had the excellent manners to offer his own again — just in case. Good man.

  • I am so with you on the holding up meetings for latecomers. I do frequent 8-hour trainings, and they always start late because we're waiting for a few more attendees. I was in charge of the last one, and I stated beforehand that we were starting no later than 8:01, regardless of how many people we were waiting on. It was the first one that ran on time all day.



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