Friday, May 31, 2013

The Decline of Politeness and Civility

"S'up?" said the kid.

Looking back, he was probably older than that. I'm reaching the age that anyone who doesn't have more than a few scraggly hairs on his chin is a "kid" who just finished puberty last week.

"Hello," I had said when I first saw him. So he said "S'up?"

It's a new word. It's a stupid word. And I'm probably overdressing it by adding in the apostrophe, like lipstick on a pig. More like a ponytail on a bald guy.


It's a question, a combination of "what's" and "up." I don't know if it's a new slang term, or if the people who say it are just too lazy to actually say the "what" first. Like it's such a heavy burden on their jaw, they're afraid their lower mandible will snap off if they talk too much.

While other people are growing increasingly alarmed about the deterioration of language — we've been alarmed about the deterioration of language for the last few hundred years, so I'm not too worried about it — I'm more concerned with the deterioration of manners and what passes for civility in this country.

Forget the increases of road rage, where someone would like to run someone off the highway because they were cut off in traffic. Forget the increases of air rage, because people are, understandably, quite sick of being treated both like children and cattle on airplanes. Forget the increased righteous indignation that shows up on social media, especially during election season.

It's the little things I worry about, because the big things often follow the little things.

Starting with "S'up?"

Whatever happened to "hi," or even "hello?" I understand the need for brevity and simplicity, but "hi" is the shortest greeting you're ever going to make. Even "s'up" has three letters plus that damn apostrophe.

Do you pause there? Is it more like "Sssss. . . up?" Or is the word actually "sup?" The kid was eating lunch when he said it. Maybe he speaks in The Queen's Very Formal English, and he was telling me what he was doing.

But monosyllabic kids aside, these highly informal greetings are everywhere.

"Hey, Dude," says the barista at my favorite coffee shop. Or "What can I get you, Bro?"

Dude? Bro? What are we, surfers?

"Here you go, man," they say when they hand me my coffee.

"Man." That's a little better. We said "man" in the 70s when I was a kid.

And for those of you who are saying, "70s? Kid? I was married with my own kids back then!" just leave me to my own mid-life crisis, please, daddy-o.

Speaking of politeness, "please" and "thank you" seem to be doing okay, but I'm worried about "you're welcome." It's wilting away with lack of use.

No longer do people say "you're welcome" when they're thanked for something. Now it's "no problem." Or "sure."

"You're welcome" is a polite way of saying "it was my pleasure to assist you." And while "no problem" seems to fit the bill — "it was no difficulty whatsoever" — its informality cheapens the sentiment of the sincerity of the gratitude. It gives a false sense of humility.

It's like the phrase "it was nothing," which is like the French "de rien," or the Spanish "de nada." Both mean "of nothing" or "it was nothing."

I'm not a big fan of saying my efforts were "nothing," because it diminishes the person's gratitude along with it. However, it's an understandable sentiment. When the person thanks you, you're in effect saying "It was the least I could do as a fair and compassionate human being, and I'm more than happy to have done it."

Which is why saying "sure" makes me crazy.

It's so dismissive in its utterance, it comes out more like a grunt.


If it's possible to shorten the pronunciation of a one-syllable word, I think this one does it nicely.

It's the "s'up?" of the thank you ritual.

We're seeing a growing disintegration of the basic niceties that separate us from New Yorkers, niceties that polite people of a certain age continue to practice. But as we get older, there will be fewer and fewer of us to observe them.

Of course, it could be worse. I could continue to be faced with my least favorite, most hated, yet unfailingly polite greeting of all.

"Hello, sir. Can I show you to your table?"

"GAAAH! I'm too young to be a sir!" my brain shrieks. And I just have to smile, nod my slightly graying head, and thank the young whippersnappers who escort me and my family to our table.

"Thank you," I tell the hostess as she's walking away.

She looks over her shoulder, waves her hand, and calls back.


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  1. Bravo! I couldn't agree more. I have seriously been considering bringing back the greeting, "How do you do?" Back in the day, everyone said "How do you do," to everyone, and then they would pull out cigarettes from their cigarette cases and smoke their brains out!


    1. Thank you! That would be interesting if you could start doing that. I usually ask "how are you?" by way of greeting, something I picked up from an Irish friend of mine, and I even started asking it with the same accent/lilt that she has.


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