As those who regularly read my writing in this space know by now, I was raised by my grandmother, not my parents. So in many ways I had a unique kind of childhood from my friends; one of the most significant differences was that I was expected to speak and comport myself around adults more formally, and meals were pretty structured.
Though my grandma was a pretty energetic lady and not dowdy by any stretch of the imagination, she was also a bit of a throwback when it came to being clean and tidy (and on time) for meals, which usually started with real hors d'oeuvres, progressed through salad or soup, followed by a main course and ended with dessert (yes, we had pizza nights and BBQ too, but those were not regular treats). I was expected sit and eat quietly at the table from age 4 and make polite conversation with everyone at the table as soon as I was able to; I could only leave the table if I asked to be excused. Use of proper knives and forks was taught and expected, talking with my mouth full was verboten, there were no elbows on the table, nor was I allowed to leave until I had finished a decent portion of all of my foods, even if I didn't like them (and there was no "kid" food ever; I ate what my grandmother did).
My grandmother explained that the reasons for manners — at the table and otherwise — was really about courtesy for other people. Behaving properly at the table showed the people you ate with that you respected them; chewing with your mouth shut meant that nobody had to see a full view of your open maw full of masticated food while they were trying to enjoy theirs. It wasn't about arbitrary rules; it was about respect, for yourselves and others.
Needless to say, the crummy manners I see every day (at tables, on public transit, and by adults and children alike), is pretty appalling. Turns out I'm not the only one; checking out the preponderance and popularity of etiquette books and websites (many of which also cover online manners, aka "netiquette," like how to communicate on Facebook, and others, which cover basics like how to shake hands, and even how to behave at the gym) it looks like many of those people who are my age and younger — many of whom were raised with few specific, spelled-out manners — are realizing that these social rules do serve a real and important purpose: not thoroughly annoying everyone around you.
The whole point of manners is that if we can all agree on some basic rules, life will be more comfortable and sane for everyone, and the reality of living in ever more-crowded urban centers means that young people today are craving the manners most of them were never taught. Without further ado, here are the five most frustrating, annoying and downright rude things I see on a daily basis (some more modern peeves, some evergreens), and what I think best manners are — I'd love to hear what your pet peeves are in the comments!
Oh, and if in doubt, refer to the Golden Rule. "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is the first and best rule, from which all the below stem:
1. Let the people on a bus, train, shuttle, subway or any other form of public transportation exit before you get on. Otherwise, pushing and shoving ensues when really there's no need at all for bodily conflict.
2. On public transit, always offer your seat to an older person, a pregnant woman, or anyone who is using a cane or other obvious sign they are disabled; sometimes I offer my seat to people who just look tired or are carrying a bunch of stuff. Err on the side of caution; don't know if a woman is pregnant? Offer the seat anyway — they will either decline or be grateful, and either way you've done something nice. I don't generally give my seat to kids, though some people do; when I was a child I was actually expected to stand and give a seat to any adult, with my grandmother explaining that children's legs have lots more energy to burn up and I didn't work on my feet all day, whereas some adults do.
3. I don't speak on my cellphone in public at all, unless it's an emergency or close to it. And I keep my voice extremely low if I do. Chatty calls to friends and family or business calls should be kept to the office and the home (or the car) — or any other place strangers or acquaintances can't hear your conversation. People talking on their phones, often so loudly I can hear them over my headphones with music turned up to a healthy level, is absolutely the most annoying thing about modern life. When you speak on your phone in public, especially loudly, you are basically announcing that what you have to say is more important than everyone else's right to a relatively quiet space. It directly infringes on other people's aural space (and we can't just "block it out" — social science studies have shown that human beings are basically compelled to listen to other people, especially when you can hear only one side of the conversation; our brains want to fill in the other half!).
4. Never, ever speak on a phone while conducting business at a counter, whether it's a fast food restaurant, a supermarket or a bank. It's just incredibly disrespectful to the person who is assisting you or ringing you up. If you are in the middle of an important conversation, the least you can do is ask the person you are speaking with to hold on while you check out. Or better yet, wait until you get home and enjoy your conversation.
5. Cover your mouth when you yawn, cough or sneeze; this keeps germs from being spread and means strangers or colleagues won't know exactly how many cavities you have.