DEAR MISS MANNERS: I am in the United States from England for a series of short visits with friends my age (late 60s and early 70s) and with some younger-generation Americanized relatives and their families. I have been shocked by the prevalence of what I consider bad manners in this younger group.
I apologize first for my own bad manners in criticizing my hosts, but I cannot refrain from listing the seemingly commonplace and accepted actions that offended me. If you say they are the norm, then I am hopelessly behind the times.1. Parents and children all interrupt one another (and guests, too).
2. Children and young people contradict their parents over small, inconsequential things that don't merit argument.
3. They all engage in whispering sessions, parent to parent, child to child, or child to parent, in front of company, with no apology beforehand.
4. In restaurants they taste the variety of dishes that have been ordered, not by using a serving spoon to transfer the food from dish to plate, but by picking it up directly with utensils they have placed in their mouths.
5. Children rush ahead of adults everywhere - to the door, the taxi, the table, the theater seats. There is no deference to others, no "excuse me, please."
6. Parents kiss their children and teenagers directly on the mouth - even their infants. My generation reserves this kissing for lovers.
7. Closed gates and closed doors do not signal privacy. More than once a child or adult entered my room without knocking or asking permission.
My own grandchildren (I have six, aged 9 to 24), all brought up on the family estate where generations have lived, wear dirty, ragged jeans, listen to loud tuneless music, and use strange slang with one another. They are bubbly, enthusiastic, sometimes overly noisy and rambunctious, and certainly not perfect. But their well-mannered parents taught them to behave courteously and considerately toward all people at all times. They respect the privacy and possessions of others, show consideration to young and old, have pleasant manners at table, are careful that no one is embarrassed or humiliated in their presence, and even rise to greet me when I walk into a room where they are seated.
They have their awkward moments and they make mistakes, but I am proud of them and confident of their behavior in any situation.
American parents seem to have lost control and have reverted to childish behavior themselves. Good manners are based on consideration for other people's feelings, and they can be taught by people without money or even education. I have found them almost without exception in the people of China and Portugal, where good manners seem to occur naturally. There is too much rudeness in my country, and in yours, too.
GENTLE READER: Indeed, there is, and Miss Manners is happy to discuss it with you, as you put it so politely. Had you made this an excuse for claiming the superiority of British manners over American, or the rich over the poor, Miss Manners would have been bristling too violently to do so.
As you know, your countrymen, as well as Miss Manners', have been lax in insisting that children exhibit the minimal proper manners you list. (We could quibble over the details, but we are in basic agreement.) What may well be the "norm" is not good enough.
But good manners do not come "naturally" in any country. Parents must teach them. It used to be considered natural to do so.
What happened in America was that a well-meant but sadly mistaken notion took hold - that it was bad for children to teach them manners. But the children who were reared by that non-system are of parental age themselves now, and are resolving not to make the same mistake.
So there is hope here, Miss Manners wants to assure you - provided the rest of the world doesn't pick up the discarded American experiment.
Judith Martin's "Miss Manners' Guide to Rearing Perfect Children" (Atheneum) is now available for etiquette emergency consultation.
Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper. The quill shortage prevents Miss Manners from answering questions other than through this column.