Simple Things/ Lang Kenneth Haynes
If I’m wrong it won’t even be the first time today, but I think that things began to unravel — with regard to even vague notions that
we were somehow connected — the day automatic door openers became the norm. The day when the tipping point occurred and doors
seemed to open magically all over the place. We became less and less compelled to hold the door open for the person behind us.
Deferred kindness. Free of the shackles of putting ourselves in the shoes of our neighbors. Free to consider our fellow humans simply
as beings that just happened to walk upright on two feet and free to toss out the evolving notion that we might just have other things in
common. And if the laws and hearts of the land would allow it, we could even be neighbors. But doors that opened automatically
changed the positive, forward momentum. It didn’t matter if the person behind you was old. It didn’t matter if they were burdened with
several bags of groceries or if they were carrying a piano. What seemed to matter was that we didn’t have to identify with their plight
because the door would automatically be held open for them.
There used to be a time when males took off their hats in public and certainly in private buildings. You’d take your hat off when you
entered a church, library or any other public place and it never occurred to us to leave our hats on when visiting a friend’s home
because their mother would either kill us outright or make us melt on the spot beneath a piercing stare. We wiped our shoes before
entering anyone’s abode whether our shoes were muddy, snowy or squeaky clean. We didn’t just plop down in a chair or couch. We
asked first. Nothing was taken for granted. And all these little things showed respect. To not take off your hat, hold the door for the
person behind you or wipe your shoes before entering someone’s home were signs that you weren’t raised right. You were a crude,
unmannerly person and few things could be worse than showing evidence of not having been raised right.
Manners represented an important connection with our fellow beings. An acknowledgment that they existed. Recognition that
despite obvious or largely contrived differences we were in the game together. And manners were the glue. The one thing or set of
things that we could all count on in the universe of infinite possibilities. I started kindergarten in 1954, the year of the Brown versus the
Topeka, Kansas Board of Education decision that declared that there was no such thing as separate but equal and that separate implied
inequality. I didn’t know how this would affect my life. I didn’t know how a court decision about schools in Kansas would play out in New
York City. But I did know that I’d better take off my hat and wipe my feet at the doorway of Mrs. White’s apartment before I entered to visit
her son, my friend. It just so happened that Mrs. White had skin as black as the darkest night, but if her skin had happened to be as
white as blindingly white snow, I would have taken off my hat and wiped my shoes anyway because manners would have demanded it.
Manners were the equalizer.
On the special occasions when we ate out, my grandmother insisted that I always leave a little food on my plate. It was considered
mannerly so I did it without question. Males walked on the curb-side when walking down the street with a woman because it was
mannerly. I remember always being corrected when I walked on the “wrong” side. One day I asked my grandfather why it made a
difference what side I walked on. It was explained to me that if a car lost control and ended up on the sidewalk that the man would be
struck instead of the woman. Or a more regular occurrence had to do with passing cars splashing water on the sidewalk as they drove
by. Better to have a wet male than a wet female I guess. But grandparents were not to be questioned and this is, I think, connected to
manners too. Because manners are more than a set of behaviors; they help to provide the very basic framework of how we think about,
talk to, behave around and otherwise communicate with our fellow human beings.
There are many ways to be mannerly — to show respect in little ways that can have huge implications. Simply saying “please” and
“thank you” can be very powerful in a good way. Taking off a hat. Looking or not looking directly into a person’s eyes depending on the
culture and other factors that could include age. Asking permission to do little things like sitting down in a home other than your own or
asking to be excused from the table if you want to leave before everybody else is finished eating whether you are the guest or the
provider of the meal.
Funny thing is that I suppose the vast majority of verbal and physical conflicts start because someone or something was
disrespected. Lunchroom skirmishes to wars between nations. Someone or something was not treated in a mannerly fashion. Someone
or something was treated in a way that left them feeling that they were considered not worthy of being treated decently. I don’t have any
interest in turning the clock back to some magical point in time because, as I’ve said in other columns, that magical time is now. I am
interested in bringing back simple and useful elements of the past when there is a reason to do so. Maybe there is a reason to bring
manners back. Maybe there is need to redefine easy ways to connect with each other that don’t require sophisticated electronics. Don’t
get me wrong — there is certainly a place for wired and wireless this, that and the other. Let’s just not assume that “new and improved”
communication speed is a fair substitute for the warmth or coldness of a human voice, a touch on the elbow to convey a subtle and
important message, or the look that can emanate from a mother’s eyes when you get close to getting on her last nerve.