What Happened to Good Manners?

By Kathy Buchanan

If you could get a word in edgewise, over the pointing and rude interrupting, what we really want to know is … What Happened to Good Manners?

What Happened to Good Manners

The rules of modern etiquette have changed in today’s world. How do you go about getting what you want when you want it without offending anyone along the way? Under the constant onslaught of other people’s everyday intrusions – from spam SMSs to strangers getting too close for comfort on public transport – are we all turning into grumbling misanthropes?

Has the world always been this way, or have things been getting steadily worse? And are the people around us as bothered by us as we are by them? What, in the name of civilisation, has happened to good manners?

Etiquette expert Anna Musson says the most prevalent issue with modern-day manners is that we have become too focused on ourselves, facilitated by the ability to shut out the world on our smartphones and disengage.

“One of the key downsides of this ability is that we are losing our empathy, our conversation skills and our ability to get along with others,” says Musson, founder of The Good Manners Company, which advises business people on how to boost success through exceptional conduct.

And while there’s never any excuse for bad behaviour, miscommunications and misperception are often what cause conflict, says psychologist Peter Doyle. “One of the most common issues is simply not listening properly or not paying attention,” he says. “Typically we are chronically ‘overloaded’ and not processing [external stimuli] as well as we need to.”

Do you use the ‘thank you’ wave in traffic? And do you let your phone ring out while someone is speaking with you? It seems when it comes to treating those around us well, it is the small things that really matter.

How Do You React?

You’re waiting patiently in a queue at the supermarket checkout when a respectable-looking lady pushes in front of you.

Sulk or instantly get angry. Overreact and be sarcastic or aggressive.

“Assuming the best of people, however faux it may be, is often your best approach,” counsels Musson, who suggests you assume the queue jumper was oblivious. “Point and sweetly say with a loud voice and a smile, ‘I’m not sure if you noticed but the queue starts over there.’”

According to Doyle, there’s no escaping queue-jumping everywhere from airports to ticket lines, or when people push their way into clearly reserved seats. He suggests, “The trick is to ask yourself: in the big picture of my life, how much will that matter? Then let it go. Even try laughing at the absurdity of the situation.”

If it really does matter to you, then be polite but assertive. For example, “Excuse me, but I was actually next in line. I’d let you go ahead, but I’m running late, thank you!” If they respond badly, then make the choice that suits the consequence. Do you really want to escalate the situation to an argument in public with a stranger? Always weigh things up and ask yourself, “Are the struggle, stress and anxiety worth the outcome?”


You are at a movie theatre, and just as you settle down to enjoy the film, someone a few seats away begins rustling and eating potato chips very loudly. Or even worse, a fellow moviegoer incessantly kicks the back of your seat.

Whisper loudly a complaint to your movie companion about how annoying the behaviour is without actually addressing it directly.

Musson stresses the importance of responding swiftly. “A generic shhhhhhhh can be effective and a good way to avoid confrontation,” she says. “Do several of these and the offender will hopefully get the idea.”

When it comes to seat kicking, regardless of the age of the person, her advice is to be direct. “Turn around and politely ask, ‘Would you mind not kicking my seat please? Thank you.’” Children will be so shocked that you spoke to them they will stop immediately. This also works on planes.

Doyle suggests finding a realistic and workable solution. “First try a respectful negotiation,” he says. “If that fails, then ask yourself: am I willing to move to another seat? If not, then do you want to lodge a formal complaint with the theatre management?”

Having personal power is about thinking things through before you take action – and it can be a matter of just seconds. Once you master this, you are much less likely to be triggered and feel angry in these types of situations.


You’re with friends or family, hoping to catch up on their lives, and tell them about yours. But instead they are busy checking their phones, taking calls or just browsing through Facebook while forgetting you’re there. Alternatively, they are too busy photographing everything from themselves to food to focus on any real conversation.

It is completely understandable if you feel like gently taking their phones and slowly dipping them into the nearest glass of water. Or loudly shouting, “Hello?!” Most of us simply remain silent and quietly get grumpier.

Musson recommends that you point out that their attention isn’t on you with comments such as: “I would love to hear more about what’s happening with you so when you’ve finished with that, let’s have a proper chat.” If they then say they are happy to speak now – even though their eyes are clearly fixed on their device – respond with a cheery, “Oh no, I can see you’re doing something. I’m happy to wait to have your full attention.” If you can deliver this without a hint of agitation, the floor is yours.

Doyle says the best approach is to set the tone by making a good example.

“With technology at our fingertips, we are all bombarded and it is very difficult to stay grounded (or focused),” he says. “We need to get back our time and our headspace. Be a good example and try not using your smartphone when you are with others, watch less TV and speak to others more.” This means demonstrating that you genuinely care about the response and are ready to listen when they speak.

Make the other person the focus of the conversation and think, What can I learn about you? “Remember that most people are kind and loving and want to create proper connection with other people in their life,” adds Doyle. “Either give them a chance to do so or show them the way.”


You’re at a wedding, or a social function, and a distant relative (or a complete stranger) begins a personal interrogation, asking deeply personal questions about your career, income, relationship, children or reproductive status.

You give them an outraged look or a very curt reply, have an angry stomp, a trip to the bar for a stiff drink or all four!

First of all, let’s assume that relatives are well meaning and not intending to pry, says Musson. And if they are deliberately trying to push ‘hot buttons’, the diversion approach can be diplomatic and fun. She suggests saying, “It’s interesting you would ask me that, Aunt Joan …” Then change the subject completely. This is a wonderful segue into a totally random subject and works on any occasion.

“Try saying to them, ‘I find that a strange question – why do you ask that?’” suggests Doyle. “And then laugh (but don’t be sarcastic). This puts the onus back on them. If they still push you, just remain clear about your own boundaries and say, ‘Thanks, but I prefer not to talk about it.’ ”


You’re walking along the street, when you see that most charming of sights: someone spitting on the road. Alternatively, you seethe in indignation as someone litters, or wanders around scratching themselves obliviously.

Even if you are normally a peaceful person, seeing a sudden visual assault can make you want to react angrily. At the very least, you may tut-tut or fume, letting their behaviour get to you.

When it comes to inexcusably bad behaviour, Musson admits she supports public shaming. “For spitting and other vulgar choices an audible ‘That’s disgusting’ is justified – provided the person isn’t intoxicated or affected by drugs. For littering, be direct. I’ve been known to pick up litter and hand it back to the person with a straightforward: ‘You dropped this’.”

According to Doyle, much of the absence of manners between strangers in public is due to the pace of modern life. “The world is too fast, too busy and most of us have too many responsibilities and are too stressed,” he says. “People are really struggling with the complexity of what is going on. But we need to take responsibility for our own behaviour and let others know when their behaviour is not acceptable.” He advises that if you feel you want to engage, then use ‘I’ statements. For example say, “I don’t find that behaviour acceptable.” Then quickly move on.

You’re having an enjoyable dinner when one of your companions is rude to a waiter.

Quiet shock. Embarrassment. You pretend it didn’t happen but let it ruin the dinner for you, and secretly and generously tip the waiter as you leave.

For Musson, this kind of behaviour is a red flag and on a par with being unkind to animals. “It’s worth asking your companion – in a light-hearted manner: ‘Was there a fly in your soup?’” she says. “This will help open the conversation and provide an opportunity to defend the server and hopefully encourage your friend to see the error of their ways.” Saying nothing condones this behaviour and you may be treated accordingly on your next visit.

“Put boundaries in place and immediately let your friend know their behaviour is not acceptable,” says Doyle. “Then become very focused on your intention and purpose when you are dealing and interacting with that person in the future.”

However, if the aggressor is you, Doyle suggests it may be time to concentrate on what’s bugging you. He suggests the ABC of self-care:

  • A) Spend time daily doing breathing, visualisation techniques and meditation to help lower your own stress levels and take part in gentle exercise.
  • B) Make an effort to connect with and spend time in nature. Wherever possible, consciously choose laughter, love and a genuine connection to others as your focus as opposed to fear and defensiveness.
  • C) Be aware of nutrition and the quality of food you’re putting into your body.


You’re driving along and encounter an angry driver suffering from road rage, who cuts you off and gives you an obnoxious hand gesture.

Angrily shout back or give a rude hand gesture yourself – just adding fuel to the fire.

“Nothing infuriates a road rager more than an oblivious recipient of their rage,” says Musson. “A sweet wave that suggests you are saying hello will ensure your blood pressure stays low. Adopting a ‘live and let live’ attitude to driving will help ease tensions.”

In this case, Doyle advises that it is imperative you avoid escalating the aggression. “Respond to the situation without blame or judgement,” he says. “If you criticise or attack them, you may face more attacks. Simply shake it off and safely drive on.”


Let’s face it, we’re all guilty of at least one of the behaviours mentioned here at some point. We’ve justified it – we were in a hurry, or desperate, or just not paying attention. We’ve felt bad, but we’ve gone with it, resolving to try better next time. And that’s fine.

It’s easy to slip: the point is to know where the line is, and to try to hold it. And it’s not at all difficult to do better. All we have to try to do is be the best we can, and we’ll find that nothing happened to good manners: they were within us all along. 

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