Man vs Manners

Manners maketh man, the old proverb goes (it predates the 2014 film Kinsgmen, apparently).  If that is the case, then I would like to introduce my own observation on current society: lack of manners maketh shit.  Many people have scapegoated the pandemic as this all inclusive excuse for people becoming increasingly incapable of common courtesy or behaving in public, but I think we have been heading this way for a lot longer (I believe the cell phone and Donald Trump were like steroids for indulging or permitting our worst instincts, and dulling our collective consciousness. The pandemic was more like the oven that allowed those awful ingredients to bake).  Because of my resolution to resume writing my blog at least once a week and, more importantly, because the topic this week feels like it is taking years off of my life, I decided to write on our epidemic of diminishing courtesy.  And yes, seeing a man in a sleeveless t-shirt at a Broadway show was probably my last straw.

My older nephew is autistic and since being accepted into a special boarding school I have seen an improvement in his communication, his eye contact and his behavior in the relatively limited time I see him.  And as an uncle I am happy for my nephew and the rest of my brother’s family that their difficult, but necessary decision to send him away appears to be bearing fruit. But the comedian in me had to ask, “what world are the preparing him for?”  Eye contact?  Asking people about their day? Behaving well in public?  Sorry, is my nephew preparing to time travel back to 1958 (hopefully a progressive woke part of the country as he is Black)?  Staring at a screen and mediocre interpersonal skills are the norm today. Eye contact will only make him stand out as odd!”

Because this is a topic I could probably write and Encyclopedia Britannica on, I will focus on just a few areas that I think embody how and why we are losing our courtesy.


I am both unfashionable and do not care about fashion.  I have found in my life, that when I am fit, a t shirt and jeans look good and a suit looks better.  But I believe flip flops are for the beach, tank tops are for the gym and crocs are for the fiery depths of hell.  When I see a man in a sleeveless t-shirt at a Broadway show, it cannot be surprising that the interrupting ring of a cell phone will follow (not necessarily from the shirtless, but from the generally permissive space that the theater has become).  I have a friend who works at the Comedy Magic Castle in LA, a swanky, members only, jacket and tie establishment. It is sort of a Heaven on Earth in that, everyone has to dress nicely, the food, drinks and entertainment are good and there are no cell phone pics or videos permitted.  But he has told me stories of men coming in sweatpants or expensive jeans or shirts and explaining that the cost of their clothes should make up for the lack of compliance with the wardrobe.  As Countess Luann said in her infamous song, which I had the pleasure of hearing in one of the only Real Housewives of New York episodes I have seen, money can’t buy you class.  Perhaps a Real Housewife is not the ideal messenger, but the message is valid nonetheless.

Venue and occasion-appropriate clothes convey a level of respect, not just for yourself, but for your surroundings.  I’ll admit I think this has been the area that I will complain about most directly attributable to the pandemic-work-from-home culture shift.  But it feels as though in the age of sweatpants to the restaurant-bathrobe to zoom work-suit to make Tik Tok dance videos, we have lost where to prioritize dignified dress.  And to be clear, this is not a classist argument. I am not asking that the impoverished man or woman dress above their means. But when you show up to a $200 play with $60 crocs, I am judging.  Because, while in and of itself, it is “harmless,” the tone it perpetuates concludes with show-interrupting cell phones.


Speaking of “harmless,” there is no phrase that I think has done more harm to day-to-day courtesy than “what’s the big deal if I’m not hurting anyone?”  Pain, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  On public transit, it increasingly appears that instead of “the world is my oyster,” the phrase now should be “the world is my footrest.”  Look on a Metro North train in the winter – salt and snow on feet is clearly not an inhibitor of using another seat as a footrest.  And when did the phrase “excuse me” become extinct.  The amount of times I have seen and experienced someone exasperated with the slow pace of someone unknowingly blocking their path and rather than say “excuse me” they will huff, puff or in the case of weirdos, slither past the person like they are passing tripwire lasers in a re-enactment of Entrapment.  Obviously I would love to link this to one of my pet peeves, parents of newer generations letting their children call adults by their first names, but I have no data, other than my disgust at it.  “You’re welcome” has been replaced by “no problem,” which Brendan Gleeson dispatches with brilliantly in the first season of the great Peacock (formerly Direct TV) series Mr. Mercedes (one of my favorite Stephen King adaptations of all time). Unlike my uncle and mom, I don’t really have a problem with “no problem,” but it seems to speak to younger people’s seeming discomfort with anything formal.

And then there is the loss of even common pleasantries.  The other day I was in the supermarket and I am always one for idle chit chat, but I can also read a room.  I can have a long conversation with the woman who once colorfully asked me about my pasture-raised, organic eggs, “why the fu*k ate these so expensive – ooops sorry for that.” I also know when a mere hello or hi as a *gulp* courtesy will be all that is welcome. On the day I am referencing, I began to put my dozen items on the conveyer belt and said, “hello.”  No response. Employee looked up from their phone, began scanning the items and then handed me a receipt.  It is when it feels like it takes more energy not to say hello back that I wonder, “WTF?”

And I do believe there is a generational divide when it comes to common courtesy.  When I lived in NYC, I said hello to all my neighbors and 96% of them said it back!  As comedian Gary Gulman spoke of during his special The Great Depresh, nice little interactions with people release serotonin, a hormone that can decrease depression. One time, having lunch with Gulman, I mused, “but when I have all these rude interactions they must have the opposite effect.”  I see a direct proportion to people’s comfort with everyday interactions and their common courtesy to their age. Of course this is neither scientific, nor is it 100 percent correlated, but I have too much anecdotal experience to ignore what I have experienced.

I used to complain about people not saying thank you when you held the door for them, but now I am lucky to get eye contact from a neighbor walking down the hall.  Perhaps this is the perfect storm of cool parents, I’m not hurting anyone laissez-faire values and a resentment of formality and perhaps the inadvertent intimacy thanking someone genuinely or accepting that thanks genuinely, but I think one thing above all has hastened our demise into a courtesy free society.


When I say devices, I am really only referencing the “smart” phone, though i did see a man looking at his iPad during a movie yesterday, so we may have someone pushing the boundaries of rudeness to the next frontier. Stay tuned!  If the Bible were written for the first time today, the serpent wouldn’t tempt Eve with an apple. He would present her with an iPhone. The smart phone has, through a combination of corporate and psychological intentionality, unleashed the absolute worst impulses in humanity. It literally creates a society of naval gazing.  I believe most problems involving lack of manners and courtesy have been uncovered, augmented or created by the smart phone.  Walking while texting, driving while texting, forcing the world to be part of your amateur films and the abandonment of headphones while listening to music are all bad developments for society and the last gasps of manners.  Earphones and ear buds are readily available. But the culture around the cell phone of navel gazing, self-importance and disproportionate access and power from a device in your hands made listening to shows and music and forcing them on others almost an inevitability.  When no amount of announcements and signs can lead to a cell hone free Broadway show it is clear we are no longer collectively in control of our phones.

A brief message of hope – I will give this to the animals that inhabit Phish shows (I kid my Phish show brethren rom my 2 shows I have attended): I have not seen that small a number of smart phones out at a concert since before there were smart phones. In all their dirty glee, the Phish Phans were still able to prioritize being in the moment and enjoying the show, rather than trying to memorialize it like a well-trained cell phone slave.  Much like Rhianna, I found love in a hopeless place when I saw hope for society at a Phish show.  But then you merely have to walk into a cafe, a store or anywhere and see that parents are allowing tablets and phones to be adjunct babysitters. If we, who at least were able to form ourselves without cell phones, have become pathetic tools, how can a generation raised on them not come out worse?

In the aforementioned supermarket I have seen a manager informing cashiers not to have their cell phones out while actively working. The tech marvel of cell phones has empowered bad instincts and created bad impulses as our society furthers the message that in person social interaction is unnecessary and courtesy completely irrelevant. And then we wonder why depression is up – perhaps because the thing we use so much is destroying some of the things that have made generations and generations of humans feel good.  Small talk, eye contact, flirting, pleasantries, courtesy, awareness of others, sympathy, empathy, interaction – I think the cell phone has not lessened our need for these things. It has simply made us worse at them while, in a self-serving manner, convincing us we don’t need those things anymore.  Though not cell phone related, I think my former co-worker who was frequently pissed off that our job required in person work after the pandemic, demonstrated the catch-22 of all of this perfectly when he recently lamented to me that his new fully-remote job would “have him all alone.”  Technological convenience blinds us to the harm until we are already harmed.  And all I am asking is that we remember to say please and thank you and to look where we are walking!


I had to include him because he has set a tone that has clearly influenced large swaths of the population. He cleverly (or more likely instinctively because he is more animal than man) cultivated a norm where being offended by something was “woke” and “politically correct,” even when the thing is actually deeply offensive.  Morgan Wallen gets caught Hard R-ing the N word?  Well, that’s just wokeness – let’s push his album to #1.  Being decent is actually being a pussy. Not wanting to offend people is never the right answer, so we begin seeing comedy that is more focused on triggering emotions than triggering laughs.  And the racism?  I can just say that since 2015, members of my family have experienced direct racism more than I recall hearing the previous 36 years of my life.  He has emboldened the worst in a lot of people and has created a culture where not giving in to your cruelties and your base instincts is somehow weak or *GASP* “liberal.”

Whether an erosion of courtesy came first or resulted from many of the things above, it is irrelevant now because these things are happening and I see no reason to be optimistic of us improving.  I am sometimes dismayed when I see how much time my nephew spends on his phone, not because I would have been better than him if I had a cell phone in my teenage years, but because of the stories, experiences and memories I have from not being buried in a phone in my formative years.  There are so many ways to scold what we have become (you just read it) because of diminishing manners, more controlling technology and horrible leadership examples. But perhaps the best way forward is for the people who know a life before all of this to share why courtesy and all its accompanying behaviors were and are good. Because the truth is, in 30 years I would hate for my nephew to be writing something about “how much better society was when all we did was stare at screens and said ‘no problem’ when someone gave you something.” Because that might mean his and our future became a Hell not even fit for Crocs.


As Broadway Goes, So Goes The Country

I believe it was Dostoyevsky who once wrote, “the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering a theater and seeing how many cell phones go off during a performance.”  As a culture critic for the people, I attend a decent number of Broadway performances each year. Now, I am a practical man and realize that against my best hopes, and the heroic efforts of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain, cell phone usage during movies is a lost cause.  Even a movie militant as strident as me has fallen back to a position of “Can you at least dim your screen if you are going to text for 1/3 of the movie???”  But Broadway, where the culture is snootier and the tickets more expensive? Surely it can stand athwart rudeness yelling Stop, right?  Well, don’t expect the man in flip flops and shorts sitting behind you in the August Wilson Theater to give you the response you desire.

The last Broadway show I saw was last week. It was a play called The Thanksgiving Play. It was solid and it stood out to me for one particular reason. No, it was not because it made me see Janet from The Good Place as a sexy Amazonian, though it did. It stood out because it was the first play I can remember seeing in the last decade where I did not hear one cell phone go off.  Perhaps it was because there were two people like this, standing in the theater reminding patrons of something important:

Silver lining: the rude people at theaters are now creating jobs for people!

Now, while I appreciate the theater doing what it takes, is this where we are?  Entering a theater, having a warning stated over the PA system and have a request in the playbill are not all sufficient enough to get people to turn off their phones?  Apparently not.

A week earlier I went to Funny Girl, which was a great show.  Tickets were extremely expensive and as befits a man of my stature, the couple sitting in front of me was a Property Brother (I do not know which one) and Zoe Deschanel.  What warmed my heart was to see Pro-Zo (my celeb name for them) sitting cuddly, clapping for musical numbers and saying less than 10 words the entire show. The same could not be said for the man sitting behind me who never stopped providing answers to rhetorical questions posed by the actors and articulating things like “that was funny” when laughter would have sufficed.  This kind of verbal tagging is awful at comedy clubs where ticket are $20 a pop. It is unforgiveable in a theater where the seats were $250 each.  And while I was admiring Pro-Zo’s respectful conduct, a phone went off in the second half of the show on the other side of the theater. But I was not surprised, as a young woman had shoved me out of the way at intermission to make sure she was 48th instead of 66th on the line for the women’s bathroom.

One half of “Pro-Zo” sitting in front of me at Funny Girl

I am old fashioned in that I like spaces that occasionally remind us that humans can be classy.  I don’t wear sneakers to the theater. I generally dress business casual and if I wasn’t an overweight slob I would probably put on a suit (no tie).  But cell phone culture, which has invaded just about every facet of public life, extends to the “I’ll wear what I want” vibe.  The email I received from the Funny Girl theater a day before the show included admonitions about cell phone use, but also a gentle suggestion that “some people choose to dress nicely for the theater… it is not required, but…”  But if you have been to the theater (saying nothing of the sad fact that the only way to sell tickets is generally celebrity casting or adapting a pre-existing, popular property – Marvel The Musical can only be a few years away) it really is anything goes.

My friend Nick is a magician in LA and he works at the prestigious Comedy & Magic Castle.  They have a dress code. Nick has told me that often men will cite the price of their jeans or sneakers or t-shirt as reasons why the do not need to wear a jacket.  The answer is that there is a dress code.  I think one reason the CMC is a popular hot spot is specifically because it is mandating a level of old school class.  From Bar Mitzvahs to proms to weddings to funerals there is something in a lot of us that love the formality of certain occasions. Perhaps we have been conditioned to it or perhaps we just don’t want to see someone’s hairy knee when look at our theater arm rest, but whatever the reason, I think it is nice to have some spaces that we treat as sanctified, even if only in a secular way.

I think the worst recent example I’ve experienced at the theater was at How I Learned to Drive, which I saw last year. The show is about grooming and sexual abuse and one of the actors came out before the show began and told the audience that the play was serious and they wanted everyone to turn off their phones.  Phones went off three times during the show.  “And that’s when my uncle put his hands under my – RING RING.”  This is probably how Catholics more hard core than me are drawn to Opus Dei when they see someone in flip flops and shorts playing an acoustic guitar at Mass.

Obviously our culture has undergone seismic shifts in the last generation or two. Decreasing reverence for and practice of religion, increased usage of cell phones and a decrease in what is considered discourteous or rude, etc.  And I am not connecting the two so do not take this as some religious screed (though replacing reverence for a “higher power” with “I’m an influencer” does feel like it could have bad repercussions in some cases).  But when I am at a movie and a dozen phone screens are lit up or on a bus and 3 different people are blaring videos or music from their phones without headphones it makes one wonder, are there any spaces where people still collectivity act in a courteous manner?  The theater feels like it would be one of those places, but perhaps I need to get into opera or ballet if I want a more reverent environment (or perhaps that is lost as well as I don’t go to either).

I’d like this to end with a “so let’s be better!” hopeful tone, but the last decade plus has just shown me that we have not reached bottom yet.  This weekend The Phantom of the Opera, Broadway’s longest running show ever, closed.  I never got to see it and amidst the celebrities, including Andrew Lloyd Webber, at the final show on Sunday, I was just left to wonder from a supermarket check out line: who was the final cell phone to go off during the show?