Good Manners in the 21st Century (And Why It’s So Hard to Be Nice in Today’s World)

Never before in our history has it been easier to treat people like crap then get away with it.

This is because we’ve evolved in very small groups and tribes, typically no more than 150 people. Everyone knew each other. Everyone held each other accountable.

If you disrespected the group or treated people unfairly, you would be quickly ostracized from your tribe and sent to live on your own (which was typically a death sentence).

According to Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck, this is why our social reputation is so important to us – and why we have a natural craving to be liked and respected by others.

Of course we still need these social ties to survive and flourish. But in today’s world, we interact with many more people, especially strangers, because it’s so much easier to communicate and travel.

This makes it easy to treat people like crap, because many people we cross paths with we probably won’t ever see again. And in short, this influences a lot of people to lose their good manners and respectability.

It’s easy to flip off the guy who cut us off on the highway. It’s easy to be rude to the waitress at that new restaurant. And it’s easy to just throw your garbage on the ground in a public park.


Because most of us know we probably won’t see these people again, so there are no consequences to being rude or disrespectful. When people can’t be held accountable for their actions, it’s easy to get away with doing bad stuff – that’s a sad but unfortunate fact of human nature.

Of course just because something is easy to get away with doesn’t mean it’s right. This is why learning “good manners” today may be more important than ever.

When we talk about good manners, we aren’t so focused on dinner etiquette or what fork to use when (though certainly that can play some role), but what’s more important is how we generally treat the people will interact with.

Having good manners means treating every stranger like a neighbor. As the old adage goes, “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”

In a similar vein, how do you treat people who you will likely never see again? The answer to this question ultimately tells you how much you need to work on your “good manners.”

This article will cover basic tips and advice to having good manners in the 21st century.

All of these suggestions are from Amy Alkon’s excellent book Good Manners for Nice People…, which gives great advice on how to treat people kindly, as well as how to stop others from treating you like crap.

Good Manners When Communicating

  • Give people a response, even if you don’t want to talk to them. – If someone says “Hi,” give a simple “Hi” back. A small exchange lets people know you acknowledge their existence.
  • “No” is better than false promises. – Be willing to turn people down if they ask for help, especially if you know it’s unrealistic for you. Most people would rather you be direct with them now than disappoint them later.
  • If you have to give someone negative feedback, do it privately. – Criticizing people in front of others adds unnecessary insult to injury. People will appreciate it if you can give feedback while still keeping their dignity and reputation intact.
  • Focus on saying positive things about people who aren’t present. – It’s easy to spread negative gossip about people, but you’ll be more likable if people don’t have to worry about the things you say behind their back.
  • Trying to pressure people just makes them do the opposite. – Always respect people’s choices and free will. Often when people feel they are being forced to do something, they will just resist doing it even more.
    Good Manners and Technology

    • Behave online as you would in real life. – It’s easy to act like a jerk behind an anonymous username, but try to treat your “digital self” as your “real self.” If you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, it’s probably not nice to say online.
    • Respect people’s privacy. – Don’t reveal information about people that they haven’t already publicly disclosed. This is especially true for any private pictures or videos that you may share with someone from a past or current relationship. It’s not cool to use the internet as a tool for revenge.
    • Don’t mass invite people to events on Facebook. – There’s no reason your friend in Colorado is going to be able to attend your local music gig in Brooklyn. Be reasonable with your invites: send them to people who you think would actually be interested in going, or who are at least in the area. (This also applies for invites to apps – don’t annoy people just so you can get an extra life in Candy Crush).
    • Avoid looking at your phone every minute. – If you’re out with people – whether it’s a date, or a bar with friends, or a family dinner – you should be spending more time interacting with them than looking at your phone. Most of the time, that e-mail or phone call or tweet can wait a couple hours. You’re important, but probably not that important.
    • Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck is a hysterical and insightful read on how everyday people can learn to treat each other with more kindness and respect. It’s a great combination of social psychology mixed with fun and practical advice.


      Good Manners and Dating

      • Men, you need to ask her out. – It’s always nice for a woman to be the one to ask a man out on a date, but the truth is most women won’t do it. If a guy is interested in a girl, he is often the one that needs to express that interest first. The simple fact is a guy who is too afraid to ask girls out won’t find many dates (unless he is incredibly good-looking). Women often want to know you care enough to take a risk and ask them out.
      • Women, you need to reject nicely. – While many women get unwanted attention constantly, it’s still important to learn to reject these advances as kindly as possible. First, because guys are people too who have feelings. And second, because rudely responding to a guy often ends up with him just becoming nastier toward you. “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” etc.
      • First dates should be cheap, short, and local. – There’s nothing worse than being stuck with a person you don’t like for hours and hours. First dates should be no more than a half hour – at a coffee shop, going to a park, etc. – and there should be an easy way out if you don’t like how things are going. There’s also no point in making it too expensive, first dates should be about finding if you are compatible.
      • If a breakup is inevitable, sooner is better than later. – Many times people stay in relationships longer than they should because they fear disappointing the other person. Yes, it hurts to make people feel rejected, but prolonging a relationship that isn’t going to work only prolongs the pain as well.
      • Online dating is about meeting in the real world. – You shouldn’t have to share your whole life story before meeting someone. Most people know quickly whether they would bother meeting a person in real life or not. Be cautious of too much “digital dating” before ever seeing someone in person (The risk of being Catfish‘d – when someone pretends to be someone else – is one good reason to follow this).

      Good Manners When Going Out and Socializing

      • Follow through on plans (or let people know if they change). – One of my biggest pet peeves is when I make plans with someone and then they randomly go missing that day, or don’t get back to me until much later saying their plans changed. I don’t care if you change your mind last minute – I sometimes do too – but at least do the courtesy of telling the other person what’s up so they don’t feel completed ditched.
      • Tipping is a part of the true cost of going out. – Don’t be cheap and try to weasel your way out of a tip – or justify not tipping due to some extremely high standards for the bartender or waitress. Unless you have an exceptionally bad experience at a bar or restaurant, you should pay the customary 15-20% tip – because that’s what good people do (and that’s how these workers make a living). If you don’t have the money, don’t go out.
      • Introduce shy people into the conversation. – If you’re hanging out with someone who is very shy and reserved, do them a service by introducing them into the conversation. Just ask, “Hey Todd, what do you think of this?” Most of the time these “invisible people” want to socialize more, but they just have trouble getting started. Make that process easier for them and they’ll greatly appreciate it.
      • Would you pass the “Spilled Drink Test?” – If you’re at a fancy event dressed up really nicely and someone spills a whole glass of red wine on you, how would you react? The person with good manners learns how to brush it off and still enjoy the night, while the person with bad manners will probably throw a hissy fit and bring everyone’s mood down with them.
      • Empathy is everything. – At the end of the day, good manners is just about taking people’s perspective and considering their thoughts and feelings. Always be willing to ask yourself, “How are my speech and actions affecting the people around me?” If you can ask yourself this and be completely honest with yourself, you’ll be a much more likable and respectable person.

      So what does it mean to have “good manners” these days?

      It’s not so much about what fork to use when. Ultimately, it’s just about having empathy and treating people with kindness and respect as if every stranger was your neighbor


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