Come 2006, students in Louisiana—s schools had
better mind their manners! The state senate has unanimously
passed good manners legislation.
Popularly dubbed a —yes sir, no sir— bill, it
requires students to address all school personnel courteously.
The measure has attracted national attention with several other
states and local school boards following Louisiana—s lead. Manners
are valued so highly that they are being legislated.
Many high school teachers believe that students
already show good manners toward adults in school. Some students
wonder why these new laws focus only on courtesy toward adults.
Crisis in Civility
Consider these three scenarios. Could they happen
in your parish or school?
— Megan was new to her all-girls Catholic high
school and wanted desperately to fit in. Her first month was
tough, since most of the girls already knew one another.
By October some popular girls confronted Megan
in gym class. —When are you going to admit it? When are you
going to —come out—? We all know that you—re a lesbian.—
Megan sensed that they intended this as an insult.
She felt torn apart inside, not knowing whether to dignify their
questions with personal answers or ignore their deliberate unkindness.
—Eight junior boys led a day camp for inner city
children as part of their school—s community service program.
By the second week, four of the more athletic guys started to
become exclusive. The non-athletes were eventually shut out
completely by the —cool— guys. This had negative effects on
the daily running of the camp.
—Confirmation preparation at a local parish focused
on ninth-graders, most who hailed from the public high school.
Laura, a student at a more exclusive private school, had recently
joined the Church. When the other freshmen discovered what school
she attended, they began to tease her and, although it was obvious
Laura was uncomfortable, kept it up until she stopped coming.
Sue Fox, author of Etiquette For Dummies,
writes that good manners are about —making people feel comfortable.—
If courtesy has to do with making people welcome and comfortable,
how are we doing?
Politicians, school boards, newspaper writers,
parents and plenty of your fellow students don—t think that
we—re doing very well. In the wake of Columbine, which began
as a lack of manners, mean- spiritedness and incivility in our
schools has been called a national crisis— by President
George W. Bush.
This Youth Update suggests that there is
a problem and encourages all of us to be more polite and courteous
with one another.
In today—s climate this won—t be easy. Polite
behavior is viewed by some as weak. Mannerly teenagers are considered
different. Courtesy is seen as snobbery.
When Jesus was walking the earth, it was unusual
to find people treating everyone civilly. Nonetheless, the gospel
teaching inspired and strengthened Christians to adopt atypically
kind and polite behavior.
Because consideration was not the norm, even they
needed reminders. St. Paul wrote to the Church at Philippi,
—Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather,
humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each
looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for
those of others— (Philippians 2:3-4). Paul would argue that
being polite isn—t just for snobs. In fact, snobbery strives
to make others uncomfortable, which is far from mannerly.
Struggles within Paul—s churches originated from
their great diversity. Converts came from all segments of the
Roman world: rich and poor, Jew and Greek, free and slave.
Prejudices and misunderstandings were common,
especially at the port of Corinth, a microcosm of the whole
Roman Empire. Sound familiar? High schools often include many
segments of society. It—s healthy to have lots of variety in
a congregation or in a school, but it can lead to unkindness
or even suspicion. Differences aren—t always valued and are
sometimes even feared.
Are there groups or cliques in your school who
don—t respect one another or even try to get along? Early believers
had similar struggles. Paul had to remind his friends at Corinth,
—Love is not rude— (1 Corinthians 13:5).
Diversity is a blessing and a challenge. As we
become more diverse we need to be aware that manners differ
from culture to culture.
Ten Ohio high school seniors served as counselors
at a summer camp on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota.
Activities included teepee races, where groups of teenagers
and children competed to see who could build their teepee first.
Several men of the Lakota tribe were available
to assist but none of them did so. This confused the non-Lakota
teens until it was explained that Lakota people believe it—s
rude to assist unless directly invited.
Certain Bedouin tribes in the Middle East deem
it bad form not to burp vigorously after a special meal.
But you probably don—t let out a good belch after turkey and
dressing at Grandma—s house! In our culture, this can put your
invitation to future Thanksgiving celebrations at risk.
Good manners evolve and change. A few decades
ago, a girl would never telephone a boy, let alone ask him out.
It was unacceptable for a woman to drive a car. Women took jobs
outside the home only out of necessity. It was bad form if a
woman—s paycheck was more than her husband—s.
Manners can differ and evolve, but the gospel
doesn—t change. The mandate of Jesus is clear: We must treat
one another with mercy and love. Could we view courtesy as a
sign that we are doing what Jesus would have us do? Not only
is this true to our Christian calling, but the world would also
be a kinder, gentler place.
Despite the gospel call to kindness, some teens
view manners and rules of etiquette as unreal, restrictive and
even dishonest. The girls who told Megan that they thought she
was a lesbian considered themselves honest.
But were these teens loving and merciful? Did
they consider Megan—s feelings? And what kind of reputation
will these girls have if they go around school bluntly saying
exactly what they think? Their rude—not to mention homophobic—behavior
will probably cost them a lot of friends.
Our motive for good manners, though, should not
be to acquire friends or for any other personal gain. Still
the proverb holds true that —there is nothing that costs so
little or goes so far as courtesy.— The student who kindly asks
a teacher to explain a low grade on an essay question stands
a better chance of a sympathetic hearing than the one who puts
the teacher on the defensive.
Saying —yes, sir— or —yes, ma—am— may seem old-fashioned
to some, but try it the next time you are pulled over by a police
officer. The job seeker who writes a thank-you note following
a job interview stands out among all applicants.
Adults are usually grateful when encountering
courteous teenagers, and will return that courtesy to them.
One young man so impressed his elder by politely asking, —Sir,
could you please tell me the time?— that the gentleman took
off his expensive watch and gave it to him!
Steven Michael Selzer, author of By George!
Mr. Washington—s Guide to Civility Today, writes that —Civility
is the WD-40 of life—it lubricates everything.— You may not
always get a free watch, but you—ll find that good manners pay
Rude Role Models
You may be asking, —But shouldn—t adults be courteous
to kids, too?— Teenage guys claim that they are more apt to
be pulled over by a police officer than other drivers are. Teenage
drivers are naturally inexperienced, but does that justify discourtesy
toward— them from a ticketing officer?
Teenagers complain that they are watched by security
in shopping malls more than adults are. Restaurants can be less
than enthusiastic in serving young people. Athletes encounter
bad behavior from opponents— coaches and even the parents in
One successful prep football program became painfully
aware that grown-ups in authority sometimes don—t act grown-up.
As the visiting team, players heard inappropriate comments from
referees such as —You—re not on your home turf now, boy.— Knowing
that they were at a disadvantage, the team had to dig deep and
tap into their inner strengths.
Football players in the 2000 film Remember
the Titans, like those described above, made a commitment
to courtesy, even when not being treated courteously—in fact,
especially then! They refused to allow immature adults to dictate
how they were going to behave. The boys pledged politeness,
despite the temptation to trade insult for insult. Whatever
the final score, they remained gentlemen, making them the real
You Can Choose
Good manners aren—t automatic. Alex Packer, the
author of How Rude! The Teenagers— Guide to Good Manners,
Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out, contends
manners are taught but parents have failed to teach them. Packer
blames the —do your own thing— 1960s and developments like latchkey
kids, less parental involvement and the general mistrust of
institutions from the Church to the military.
A U.S. News & World Report poll shows
that 89 percent of Americans believe we are on the verge of
a crisis of incivility. Polls of teenagers reflect similar numbers.
Public Agenda, a national research group, surveyed
over 2,000 Americans recently on the topic of rudeness. Half
of those interviewed reported that, in the last year, they had
walked out of a store because of poor service, encountered reckless
and dangerous drivers, and encountered people yelling into cellular
phones in inappropriate places.
You will connect with all kinds of people. Why
let them decide how you will respond? In an era dominated by
media that disdain others for being the weakest link (suggesting
that unkind and rude behavior is acceptable and even preferred),
refusal to exchange jerky behavior for jerky behavior calls
for willpower, commitment and courage.
Inspired by Faith
Jesus did not concern himself with what somebody
could do for him. The weakest links (those who deserve uncivil
treatment, as suggested by a once-popular TV show) were the
first in Jesus— Kingdom of God. Most of the people Jesus served
were not respectable or acceptable in the world of the first
The earliest Gospel, Mark, describes Jesus interacting
with a motley cast of characters: the man who kept crying out
loudly (a.k.a. the Gerasene demoniac), the woman who sought
healing by touching Jesus without asking, and the people who
loudly criticized the woman who anointed Jesus with oil at Bethany.
But perhaps no Gospel story illustrates the Christian call to
civility more than that of the Greek woman in Mark 7:24-30.
The encounter between Jesus and this pagan foreigner
who broke all rules of civility inspires us in our current cultural
courtesy crisis. Forcing herself into the house where Jesus
was, she knows it is unacceptable to address him, let alone
ask for a healing for her daughter.
Jewish women were treated with little respect
and pagan women, even less. Jesus, who appears to act just as
his less enlightened countrymen would, reminds her, —The children
should be fed first, because it is not fair to take the children—s
food and throw it to the little dogs!— In other words, —Look,
lady! You know the drill! The people of Israel (the chosen people)
come before pagans like you!—
Her reply: —Yes, sir! But dogs under the table
(Greek women like herself) eat the scraps from the children
(Israel).— (An accurate translation for this dog talk would
involve the offensive slang for female dog.) Jesus, hearing
her no-holds-barred, last-ditch reply, heals her daughter.
Deal With It
Pushy and rude, the lady was no lady—though she
surely was a loving mother in risking everything for her daughter.
Still, she has the claim to fame of being the only person in
the New Testament who wins an argument with Jesus!
What does this story tell us about the rude people
in our life? We are challenged to move beyond their poor behavior,
as Jesus did, seeing a fractured and hurting person. He didn—t
judge her entire character by her pushy behavior. We don—t have
to respond rudely to those who are impolite to us. The loving
thing may well be to let them win the argument, as Jesus does.
This takes a lot of guts and is particularly disarming
when you have to deal with rude adults. Try it! They—ll wonder
what you—re up to!
The —yes sir, no sir— laws sweeping through states
and school boards may have positive effects. But for teens rooted
in the gospel, are courtesy laws necessary?
Christian teens already have the law, the
Law of Christ, challenging us to reverence those different from
us and to do good to everyone. Honest (blunt) expression of
feelings and doing your own thing at the expense of others have
The Law of Christ embraces in mercy and love the
marginalized within our parish and school, for these are the
first in the Kingdom. The Lord promises us the grace to be salt
for the earth and light for the world. We only have to ask (politely,