Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.

—Emily Post

What’s with everybody?

“A society without manners is the jungle, and people without manners are self-absorbed agents of conflict and disorder.”

A fistful of industry and university surveys tell a sorry tale. Some 85 percent of Americans believe we’re ruder than we were 10 years ago. Some 78 percent believe clients are rude to employees more often than they were five years ago. And 75 percent say bad manners are “not unusual” anymore. That would merely be discouraging if boorish behavior didn’t have consequences.

Unruly passengers caused 10 times more flight disruptions last year than in 2010. Bad behavior by patients and their family members has been identified as a significant factor behind the rise of nurse “burn out,” and some medical facilities have installed “panic buttons” for personnel beset by abusive visitors. School administrators across the country report an epidemic of “rude, mean and threatening” parents storming into school offices with ears shut tight and mouths wide open. And nobody is feeling the sting of the country’s increasingly waspish character more sharply than food service workers, who report that tips are way down and customer tempers are way up.

We’re not talking about Royal Etiquette here. Men don’t need a letter of introduction to get a date, and nobody expects women to feign unconsciousness every time an indelicate topic comes up. What seems to be missing from the national code of conduct is garden-variety good manners, and that’s a much bigger problem than it sounds like.

A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.

—Robert Heinlein

At bottom, manners are just behaving like you give a rip about somebody besides yourself. Good manners reduce friction, ease repartee, invite compromise, promote harmony. A society without manners is the jungle, and people without manners are self-absorbed agents of conflict and disorder. They’re also their own worst enemies, because good manners can be very good for the mannerly.

“How did we become a nation of punks?”

You only get one chance to make a first impression, and manners—good and bad—invariably impress. Your manners are your perpetual introduction, and they’re how people size you up. Good manners communicate confidence, a sense of self-worth, respect for others. Politeness demonstrates humility, kindness, gratitude. Courtesy translates as dependable, appreciative, trustworthy. Even rude people like the polite better than their own kind. Conversely, bad manners mark you as self-important, erratic, disrespectful, irresponsible. Bad manners aren’t just abrasive, they’re counterproductive.

It is a wise thing to be polite; consequently, it is a stupid thing to be rude.

—Arthur Schopenhauer

How did we become a nation of punks? Theories vary. Certainly COVID-19 played its part. Long months of relative confinement bred less cordial patterns of behavior. Bedrock etiquette like shaking hands and holding doors gave way to distance and avoidance. Worse, according to sociologists, the presumed mortal threat of COVID triggered the public’s fight-or-flight instinct, and a lot of people are still in combat mode.

Another likely suspect in our lengthening season of incivility is the more persistent pandemic of social media. Generations of young people with their noses stuck in their smartphones aren’t exactly a recipe for social grace. Interestingly, social media habitués aren’t necessarily unmannered. It’s just that their courtesies are reserved for online interactions instead of the real-world kind. Surveyed regarding what constitutes proper public behavior, a strong majority of Millennials shared the opinions that cutting in line or refusing to give up your bus seat to a pregnant or elderly person is “not rude,” while failing to return a text promptly is “rude” and posting a television spoiler is “very rude.”

Lastly, but by no means leastly, many experts blame America’s foul humor on the deteriorating quality of public discourse. Politicians don’t even pretend to play nice anymore, and partisans on either side of any question increasingly reject compromise as capitulation. Disagreements in every arena are typically angry, trenchant and personal. And, as falls our popular conversation, so falls our private ones.

The hardest job kids face today is learning good manners without seeing any.

—Fred Astaire

We’ve been pretty rude since 2019, at least, and expecting an overnight return to civility probably isn’t realistic. Still, we have to start somewhere, and still more surveys identify a few good manners that are particularly wanting and desperately wanted:

Send thank-you notes. Handwritten is best, but even a text is better than ignoring a kindness.

Don’t swear. Not everybody’s as hip as you are. Show some class.

Stand when being introduced to someone. Respect, yo.

Don’t call before 9 or after 9. People have a right to their private time. Unless their house is on fire, whatever you want to say can wait.

Be punctual. Everybody’s time is precious, and late is never fashionable.

RSVP. About the same time everyone started hoarding toilet paper, they stopped doing this. Failing to RSVP in a timely manner is seriously disrespectful, with or without the bad excuse of COVID-19.

Like coronavirus, the common cold and crabs, rudeness is catching. Thankfully, so is politeness. If you want to live in a kinder, gentler America, you can start by projecting kindness and gentility toward all, the civil and the surly alike. It’s human nature to respond in kind, and you might find yourself Patient Zero in a pandemic of politesse.

T stands for being nice. T stands for manners. T stands for being polite.

—Mr. T