How Does Your Generation Define “Good Manners?”

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4-H encourages life skill development in every aspect of the program. Life skills include competencies like problem-solving, decision making, goal setting, stress management, and a multitude of social skills that can be developed while participating in our camps, clubs, and workshops. I don’t need to tell you how important it is for our maturing young people to learn and practice these skills. Recently, I have also heard a lot of talk concerning an etiquette disparity between the generations as they are interacting in social, business, and family situations. When I googled “etiquette pet peeves”, I was shocked to find over a million articles on the subject! Then I asked the Facebook population to weigh in on “pet peeves with generational differences.” This is clearly a sensitive topic and people have a wide range of strong opinions that seem to come directly from personal experience. Today, I will attempt to close the etiquette gap that seems to widen with each negative interaction between the generations.

More adults than youth shared their opinions on my Facebook wall but that makes sense since Facebook is the most common social platform for folks my age. I happily got a few valuable Generation Z opinions both publicly and via private message. Generation “Z’ers”, are our youngest and largest generation. As old as twenty-five, they have never known a time without smartphones or computers. These are my 4-H members and they are entering professional spaces with new and innovative ideas, planning to change the world. Thanks to Stephanie Davis, an NC State human resources employee, I have a few statements about formative historical events that will help you determine your generational category. If you did not experience the crash of the NY Stock Exchange or the Great Depression you may be part of the Baby Boomer Generation. If you also cannot remember the first moon landing or the Kennedy assassination you could be part of Generation X, that would be where I land. If you also cannot remember the space shuttle challenger disaster you might be a Millennial. If you cannot remember the 9/11 events, you are part of Generation Z. If you can remember all of these events you are a Traditionalist. It is not a stretch to believe that people from each of these age groups might approach social etiquette differently. As a Generation Xer, I am sandwiched between two large generations and if I had a dollar for every time I have heard “old people are mean” and “young people are lazy” I would be a rich woman.

How we meet and greet each other represented the majority of the responses to my question. This category includes a wide variety of skills. Eye contact, proper greetings, use of poor language and curse words, saying thank you, holding the door for the person behind you, saying “bless you”, and taking off your hat when in a restaurant were commonly agreed upon across the generations. This is good news! Baby Boomers and Traditionalists generally prefer to be addressed by those younger as Ms., Mrs., or Mr. Last Name. Beginning with Generation X this tradition evolved to Ms., Mrs., or Mr. First Name. Interestingly saying “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am” when speaking to an elder seems important to many Baby Boomers and Generation Xers from the rural south and rude or low class to some Baby Boomers and Generation Xers from other areas of the US. In the south, if a person doesn’t say “yes ma’am” to you it might not indicate a lack of respect. It seems sometime between the Baby Boomers and Generation Y appropriate social contact changed. Touching the shoulder or back of someone either younger or of the opposite sex may be received today as dominating behavior and disrespectful to the one being touched. Lastly included in how we meet and greet each other, is the use of our phones. The opinions are strong and surprisingly similar across the generations. No one from any generation likes when a face to face conversation is disrupted by the presence of a screen. Generation Z members are struggling with this because their social media applications tell them when a post was read by a friend. Minutes or hours of anxiety could be passed while waiting on a response. Because of this, they are more forgiving when a phone interrupts an in-person conversation.

Business etiquette opinions included customer service, shared meals, grammar, and language. Generation Z and Millennials have a reasonable bone to pick with Generation X, Baby Boomers, and Traditionalists. They do not like it when they or their ideas are overlooked as invaluable because they are young. However, some say respect should be earned and not assumed. Maybe if we practice listening, good eye contact, and proper greetings we can convey respect, even if it is only surface level. Personal phone use is generally bad form when in a business meeting, especially over a meal. Proper use of textbook grammar shows professionalism and the use of curse words should always be avoided.

Today’s mealtime traditions are different as families are going in multiple directions all day. The family that sits down together for even one meal in a day is rare. What hasn’t changed is the need to know how to behave at a table and most of the mealtime rules accepted in society remain unchanged, however, the opportunity to practice has decreased. For Generation Z folks out there, you probably need to learn how to properly set a table because one day you may be at a nice restaurant needing to impress the person sitting across from you. There was no disagreement that chewing should be done with the mouth closed and talking should cease while chewing. Since meals are face to face it goes without saying that if a conversation is happening the smartphone should be put away, at least when multiple generations are dining together. This is a good time to show respect to your elders by honoring and imitating their example of polite behavior.

I don’t know if I accomplished my goal and closed any etiquette gaps with my informal research project, but I did learn our ideas of proper etiquette were most likely formed by the generation before us and manners are not static from generation to generation or even region to region. Why don’t people rsvp anymore? What happened to the idea that children should be seen and not heard? When do Generation Xers get to eat first at the cover dish buffet? Do I say Mr., Mrs., or assume familiarity and call you by your first name? These are examples of our changing social graces. Good manners will always be in fashion but how they are defined varies from person to person. When in doubt, it is best to defer to the preferences of the oldest generation in the room and when you are not sure, it’s o.k. to ask questions or discuss the purpose behind a rule or tradition. Knowledge empowers us to be better. The bottom line is, let us practice the golden rule, be less easily offended, and forgive readily!

4-H encourages youth to “make the best better.” Life skill building is an excellent way to do this. If you want to join us this year check out to learn how. Pam is the 4-H Program Assistant for North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Lee County Center. 4-H is a positive youth development program offering programs that suit a variety of backgrounds, interests, budgets, and schedules. From in-school to after-school, clubs to camps, 4-H’s programs are available in Lee County and we welcome children who want to have fun, learn, and grow. In North Carolina, 4-H is brought to you by the NC State Cooperative Extension. N.C. Cooperative Extension’s experts and educators share university knowledge, information, and tools you can use every day to improve your life.