Perhaps the easiest thing we can do to improve the quality of our interactions with one another in 2011 is resolve to be more polite. Many small acts -- from not taking the last cup of coffee without starting a fresh pot to putting the toilet seat down -- can add up to a level of increased civility in our lives that, when recognized and mirrored by others, exponentially improves the quality of our days.
The underlying principle is quite simple, according to Diane Gottsman, nationally recognized etiquette professional and owner of The Protocol School of Texas: Being polite involves recognizing and acknowledging the needs of others. Sue Jacques, a Canadian etiquette consultant and blogger known as The Civility CEO, agrees. Both agree that being polite is about respect -- for ourselves and others. Jacques says, "It is a choice to exhibit our best selves in all circumstances." "The key," says Gottsman, "is to put others at ease while presenting oneself in a perfectly polished manner."
Here, then, are 11 ways to be more polite in 2011, with insights from Gottsman, Jacques and Thomas P. Farley, a manners and lifestyle expert based in New York. All three are "go-to" experts in the tweet-filled world of modern manners. "Despite the fact that e-mailing and texting has introduced all sorts of communication shortcuts into our conversations, there is still always room for an expression of kindness and consideration. Being courteous never goes out of style," Farley says.
1. Stand up
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Gottsman's No. 1 piece of advice for improving our manners is surprisingly simple: Rise whenever you are being introduced -- women, too. "It's a respect factor," she says. "It sets the tone."
"We should listen 60 percent of the time and speak 40 percent," Gottsman says. To be a better listener: Make eye contact and pause to think before you respond. As Jacques says, "Communication is more than hitting the SEND button." Focus on the other person, nod your head, lean forward. Avoid looking at your watch, phone or the TV over the person's shoulder. "There is nothing wrong with making people think they're wonderful; listening sincerely to what others have to say is the single best way to do that," Gottsman says. Farley reminds us that conversation is not performance art. "We all have friends who love the spotlight so much that every conversation ultimately winds up being about them. You could be chatting about your trip down the Amazon and she'd interrupt with: 'Speaking of Amazon, I just ordered this new book yesterday ...' If that sounds like you, remember this: No matter how entertaining you think you are, if your stories run over five minutes, chances are your friends are not that entertained.... They're just being polite. Take a breath and don't hog the floor."
3. Say please and thank you
In our abbreviated digital conversations, we often dismiss basic pleasantries. It's difficult to overestimate their value. This includes the way we order fast food at a drive-through or conduct business at the bank. "Respect is not situational," Jacques says. "Manners are not about right and wrong. They are not something we turn off and on. Our civility is consistent; it is who we are." Farley suggests we also up the use of another word, "the hardest one of all to utter," he says, "but probably the most important, too: sorry." With regular use of please, thank you and sorry, he suggests, "90 percent of manners transgressions would evaporate."
4. Use your table manners
Slow down. Include conversation on the dinner menu. The importance of good table manners is timeless. "Dining skills are indicators of your attention to detail in other areas of your life," Gottsman says. Jacques adds, "We used to say don't talk with food in your mouth; now it's don't text with food in your mouth." But, she notes, there are exceptions. Let your dining companions know in advance if you are expecting an important communication. Farley says, "If you truly have a pressing reason to check that phone, excuse yourself to the restroom and do a quick check there. The same goes for Googling a fact to settle an argument that occurs during dinner. Save the Web searches (and the YouTube video sharing) for later -- after you've all finished your meal and have left the table."
Gottsman's tips for being more polite during a meal:
Speak with guests seated on both sides of you.
Pass items counter-clockwise.
Place your napkin on your chair when excusing yourself temporarily from the table and on the table at end of the meal.
Always thank the host for the meal.
If you are the one who invited fellow diners, you also pay and tip.
But, you ask, what of the old saw, "No elbows on the table"? Farley says, "The primary reason for the rule is to prevent people from putting their elbows in their food -- or the food of someone next to them. But if there is no food on the table, as in before or after the meal or between courses, and there is ample room to your left and right, putting your elbows on a table to lean in to listen to the other people at the table with you is a sign of engagement, and one I always welcome."
5. Extend your hand and introduce yourself
This simple act of politeness has been lost in a rush to resolve issues and shorten meetings. "Always extend your hand and offer your first and last name. If someone starts a conversation without introducing themselves, take the initiative [and introduce yourself] with a smile and a firm shake." When someone introduces himself to you, be sure to reciprocate with your full name; simply saying "Hello" in answer is not enough.
Jacques, who believes "civility is making a comeback," suggests that to perfect your handshake, you make three connections:
Eye to eye -- look at the person whom you are greeting.
Heart to heart -- extend your hand to acknowledge that you care about this meeting.
Web to web -- if the web of your hand between the thumb and pointer finger meets the same web on the other person's hand, you will avoid the cringe-inducing limp handshake.
6. Model good behavior for your kids
Sounds like a given, but how often have you yelled at your child to "Quiet down"? Write thank-you notes. Acknowledge a kindness. Return a favor. "It's important to be the role model. If we want our children to be respectful of their peers and other adults, we must set the example. They hear and see everything." That's reason enough to stop gossiping on the phone about a friend, discrediting a teacher or colleague or complaining about our own parents.
7. Return phone calls and answer e-mail
"The standard for the return of a phone call or e-mail is one business day," Gottsman says. But beyond responding, which of our newfangled methods of communicating is preferable? Should you answer a phone call with an e-mail? There are no "Thou Shall Nots" when it comes to modern communication. Jacques says we should determine which form makes the other person feel most comfortable by asking, "How would you prefer to communicate?"
8. Perform small random acts of kindness
Hold that door or elevator. Help someone who has dropped something. Be sure an elderly person can safely remove that item from a shelf in the grocery store. Acts of kindness and being polite are closely related because both derive from respect for others. "It is important to show kindness and consideration -- and this is not a gender issue. If you are a woman and a man is carrying a heavy load, hold the door or elevator and allow him to step in. Don't be afraid to ask if someone is in need of help. If an elderly person is in an automated wheelchair in the grocery store, don't feel like you will make them feel uncomfortable by asking if they need assistance."
9. Restore salutations to your life
Simple greetings like "Hello" and "How are you" seem to be increasingly lost in the shuffle of our lives. And don't forget to say "Good morning" and "Good night," even within your household. "If you begin and end your day with these salutations, chances are that your conversations in between will be considerate ones," Farley says. Gottsman adds, "When you say, 'How are you?' pause for the answer. Be more sincere in your inquiry." When introducing yourself is not appropriate (when asking someone for directions, checking in for a flight), a greeting of some sort is always welcome. That said, Gottsman cautions that a wave is enough when catching sight of someone you know in a restaurant. "It is never appropriate to approach a table or otherwise interrupt someone else who is dining."
10. Be polite behind the wheel
"Common courtesy and safety are very closely linked here. Allow others to merge, stay off the horn, and assume that everything you do behind the wheel will be noticed, videotaped and aired on the nightly news." Jacques says not to forget that little thank-you wave in answer to another driver's kindness. Road rage is an emotion she says she shed by deciding to presume every racing, erratic driver is on the way to the hospital to have a baby.
11. Send handwritten notes
Simple courtesies such as thank-you notes and RSVPs should not be overlooked or underestimated. You can tell a great deal about people by the way they handle weddings, funerals, gifts and invitations. And don't forget the notes to say congratulations, thinking about you. Jacques says that written by hand and posted by mail, these expressions of sincere sentiment are "tangible keepsakes -- like little presents." Farley concurs. "How many people tape e-mailed thank-you notes to the refrigerator?" he says. Remember to thank the host of a dinner party, as well as someone who has interviewed you for a job opening. In a business situation where time is of the essence, Gottsman says an e-mail is an acceptable choice -- but send the handwritten note by post, too. When sending a thank-you note, be specific, mention the great conversation you had with another guest or the choice of wine.
Finally, just go forth and be nice. The one thing Gottsman suggests we all do a whole lot less of in 2011 is talk about our bodies. She's all about discussing good health, but please let's not talk about dieting. That's one tip that should make everybody more comfortable.