Busted: Wat'cha Gonna Do When the Civility Cops Come For You?

“Excuse me...” My 19-year-old daughter looks up at the middle-aged woman who has approached the table in a barbecue joint where Maggie and her friend are sharing a steaming pile of nachos. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to give you a few tips on manners,” the woman says, as if it’s Maggie’s lucky day. “One never knows who’s watching and sizing you up!”

Before she can answer, her silverware is seized, an act of aggression neither polite nor sanitary, Maggie notes. Sgt. Sophisticate then proceeds to demonstrate how to use a fork and knife—the European way.

‘Cuz Lord knows a mess of barbecue nachos calls for Downton Abbey-style decorum.

Maggie, nonetheless, had “tried to be delicate” with her greasy bar fare, opting for utensils rather than her bare hands, the perpetrator insisted later in a statement. Still, nachos will be nachos.

The accused maintains to this day that prior to the intervention she had been sitting up pin-straight—she’s a dancer—with her ballerina flat-shod feet neatly crossed. She’d had her hair cut and styled that afternoon, and she was wearing a sundress with a longish, swirly skirt, not to mention a fresh coat of red lipstick. But there she was, enduring a shake-down, as if she’d been eating with her toes.

The incident is not isolated, I’m afraid. Go ahead and google public shaming—it’s a thing.

Consider my husband, a gentleman of the first order, in line at Chipotle, who was loudly labeled an “a—hole” for blocking the exit while stepping aside to let someone into the store. An activity as bland as burrito-buying can be perilous business. Or my friend, Cristell, accosted by a passerby who berated her for glancing at her phone in the presence of her adolescent daughter. “If I had a daughter, you wouldn’t catch me ignoring her like that!” (Cristell’s older daughter, whom they were searching for at an outdoor festival, was texting her whereabouts.) Cristell, however, was given no chance to respond to the charge—a quick in and out is the MO of the amateur enforcer, who, after making a point, evaporates like cheap cologne in July.

With their war cry of Well, I never!, running loose are legions of rogue Emily Post-wannabes. But if the enormous volume of the good lady’s work, which, incidentally sits on a shelf in our dining room, offers any indication, Mrs. Post, God rest her soul, would have sooner belched before the Queen than nudge up to a stranger and sequester her silverware. (Or scold a body for wearing yoga pants to the grocery or demand a door be held open—or not held open.)

Rather, the (legit) Mistress of Manners would likely confirm what I’m getting at here—that pointing fingers at uncouthness doesn’t present as particularly couth. I’d bet a heap of nachos on it.

Manners, after all, are not arbitrary rules—they exist for a reason, chiefly to show respect for others.

Respect, I remind myself as I sit across the coffee shop from a pair of millennials munching on sandwiches. One is in sweats, slumped down so low in her seat, I can’t fathom how her esophagus remains open enough to swallow, the other—dressed in Daisy Dukes—has knees drawn to her chest, ratty tennis shoes on the chair. They are smacking and talking with their mouths full, permitting me the distinct pleasure of hearing not only each word they’re saying but every nuance of every bite. Charmed, I’m sure. I sip tea and tap like worry itself on my laptop keys.

I’ll allow, it’s a fair question: were today’s civility flouters raised in a barn? I mean, we’re living in a society. Perhaps I should just pop over to the scene of the crime and have a quick word—it takes a village, right?

Instead, I settle for issuing a menacing glare. It’s lost on them.

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