Manners maven makes vanishing etiquette her business

By Meredith Moss

Cox News Service

The three teen-age girls -- skimpily dressed and conversing loudly -- were walking down a Washington, D.C., street. Behind them -- horrified by the obscenities that dominated their speech -- walked Letitia Baldridge.

"Hey, stop for a minute!" the manners maven called out to the trio.

Baldridge, who served as Jacqueline Kennedy's chief of staff at the White House, has authored 19 books, most of them on the subject of etiquette.


"I'm old enough to be your grandmother and I know you'll think I'm looney," said Baldridge, 77. "You are all so beautiful -- I wish I had your faces and your figures.

"But when you use those words you are wrecking your image," she continued. "It's as if somebody threw a stone at a brilliant mirror and shattered it."

Jaws dropped. The girls were speechless.

"I know I got through to them," insists Baldridge, in Dayton, Ohio, last week for the Junior League's Town Hall lecture series. "They're going to tell everyone about this crazy lady who stopped them on the street. But they'll think about what I said."

The survey says …

; Baldridge's visit coincided with the recent release of a national study that strongly supports her personal crusade for a kinder and more considerate society.

Judging from the findings, we might all be wise to heed her advice.

Americans are upset about everything from cell phones and crazy drivers to bad customer service, swearing and kids, according to Rick Remington, spokesperson for Public Agenda, the organization that conducted the study.


"The level of intensity is what surprised us," he said in a telephone interview from New York.

Those polled believe rudeness is getting worse. Forty-one percent admit they're sometimes part of the problem -- blaming their own bad behavior on a hectic pace of life and congested highways.

Nearly half of those polled said bad service drove them out of a store in the past year.

That's the reason Baldridge now shops by catalog.

"I can't stand to go into a store and be dissed," she says frankly.

Offensive language and behavior on television are among the greatest offenders. Customer service by phone elicited one of the most negative reactions in the survey.

Nearly everyone said it was "very frustrating" to call a company and be greeted by a recording rather than a human being.

"You get the menu, press '1' for this and press '2' for this," a woman related. "If you stay on the line, punch '0' and an operator will come on -- then you get music for 15 minutes, then you get disgusted and hang up."


We tend to be ruder, says Remington, when we're anonymous -- at a shopping mall, on the freeway.

According to the survey, large majorities of Americans believe life was more civil in the past.

So does Baldridge, but she insists we can't blame the younger generation.

"They don't know any better," she insists. "They're spending less time with their parents. Nothing is getting passed down."

Instead of being reminded to write a thank-you note, she says today's kids are more likely to spend their time in front of the television, the Nintendo or the computer.

Baldridge says rudeness has led to all kinds of changes in American society. One example? Americans have dramatically curtailed their home entertaining.

"People don't RSVP or they accept but don't show up," she says. "Or they leave in the middle of dinner to go home and watch a football game. It shows a lack of respect for your hosts."

Good manners aren't about which fork you use, insists Baldridge.


She made that perfectly clear when an audience member rose for the question-and-answer session after her lecture.

"Why won't you or anybody else let me cut up my spaghetti?" demanded the woman." I can't twirl it and I have these strips hanging down that I slurp up!"

"It's all right! Of course you can!" responded a sympathetic Baldridge.

"We can accept bad manners with a fork and knife, but foul language hurls through the air and destroys our peace and dignity and pleasure," she said. "We have a beautiful language and we're ruining it."

Surprisingly, though she conducts business seminars for corporations, Baldridge doesn't push etiquette classes for kids, particularly if they're expensive and emphasize what she labels superficial "charm." Etiquette classes for kids should emphasize basic kindness rather than trying to produce "Little Miss Americas."

"A kind heart and kind manners mean you don't hurt feelings and you make other people feel good," a high school junior told her.

It's the definition she chooses for her book, "Letitia Baldrige's More Than Manners: Raising Today's Kids to Have Kind Manners &; Good Hearts."

Some good news


The news isn't all bad. The Public Agenda survey shows that we're making progress when it comes to the treatment of minorities, the disabled and gays.

Nearly half the respondents said they "often" see people being kind and courteous and 64 percent rate their neighbors as friendly and helpful. Almost six in 10 respondents age 65 or older gave society good ratings for treating senior citizens with respect.

And nearly three-quarters of the survey respondents told Public Agenda that Americans had become more thoughtful and caring toward one another in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

So what should Americans do as individuals when confronted with rude behavior?

About 20 percent would agree with the way Baldridge handled her trio of D.C. teens -- letting them know they are doing something wrong.

A third would treat the rude person with special politeness -- as Baldridge did -- in hopes they will learn by example.

"I think today's youth are full of energy and goodness," Baldridge says. "They are eager to learn, and they can turn us around, but we've got to help. They're hungry for this."

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