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Wednesday, February 01, 2023
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Several weeks ago, I entered my bank to try to solve a problem. A young woman, whom I had never seen before, approached, asking if she could help me. I showed her the documents I had and explained what I was hoping to achieve. She looked them over and began to address me, saying, “Okay, Nancy ...”

I was quite taken aback! I could have been the woman’s mother, plus! Having been distressed over the past number of years at the increasing decrease of courtesy and propriety in social interactions, the way this woman addressed me particularly astounded me, as banks, at least I thought, were still institutions of more formal conduct.

I told the young woman that I was uncomfortable with her addressing me as Nancy and would much prefer she call me Mrs. Zwiebach. She said, “Oh, I didn’t know how to pronounce your name.”

My response was, “Then you should have asked.”

I remember the first time I was in a restaurant and heard nearby diners speaking loudly enough to be heard clearly, using extremes of foul language, resulting in my feeling absolutely violated and shocked. I certainly wasn’t so naive as to think that some people didn’t speak that way, I’d just never heard it in a publicly shared space before and with such disregard to those around them. It didn’t take too much time before I experienced waitstaff also expressing themselves with the same vulgarity and, then, eventually, managers and even owners of establishments using four letter words as easily as saying “Have a nice day.”

Once, in a kosher market, shopping with my young daughter, the proprietor, on a phone within the confines of the store, was speaking with one of his suppliers, shouting at the highest volume, expressing himself in a way beyond anything acceptable. My daughter, shocked, turned to me and said, “Mommy, he’s wearing a kippah.”

Debating whether or not to say anything to him, I did decide to approach him—and reproach him—saying, “You know, children are in the store.” (Not that I would have wanted to hear it myself.)

He apologized and said he was just having a very bad time with that company and he normally never spoke that way. However, upon checking out, the cashier thanked me and said that they had to listen to that all day. The question is, if the owner of the store doesn’t care about the verbal rudeness his customers and employees hear, how can he expect his employees to care and guard their tongues?

Where has civility gone? Yes, we live in a more informal world—and to some degree, that’s wonderful. I guess the issue is, to what degree?

I wonder if it would be shocking to anyone reading this to learn that once, in a first grade classroom, when standing by the door at the time the teacher announced it was time for recess, several students started trying to shove me out of the way. Really? Six and 7-year-olds shoving an adult? Or that in a movie theater, when asking adults sitting behind me and holding a conversation at regular voice level to please be quiet, they deliberately spoke louder, not only interfering with us, but with everyone else around them. Or, that when approaching yeshivas with my arms full of various materials, both grown men as well as students, allowed the door to slam in my face rather offering to help with what I was carrying. They couldn’t even holding the door? Huh?

On Sundays, I work in a program that is housed in a yeshiva. I sit in the office and have access to the PA system. Not too long ago, a woman entered the building, approached my desk and demanded, “I need you to page so and so and so and so!” I got up to go to the phone that would allow me to do this, asked her to repeat the names of the children she wanted paged, and then added, politely, “It would have been nice if you said, ‘Please.’”

WHOA! She scrunched up her face and demanded, “What is your name?” She was upset with me and, obviously, wanted to report my insolence to my “superior!” After all, in her mind, I was “only” a secretary and what right did I have to expect to be spoken to courteously. REALLY!!

To her credit, she did, it seemed, reflect on the interaction and offered an apology. However, this attitude, this way of approaching people, and thinking of others as being “less” and then speaking  to them in a disrespectful, demeaning manner, where does that come from?

Interestingly, while I’ve been contemplating writing about this issue for a while, just recently several people, within the context of informal conversations, have addressed this very topic. Among them were some who have worked with children and parents over many years and are noticing the disturbing changes in behaviors. Children more likely to present with disrespectful actions toward their peers and adults, but the parents approach teachers and administrators very differently from the way they did in previous generations. And from whom do the children learn?

Parents must always keep in mind that they are the main role models for their children. I guess if some parents do not value respect or consideration for others, if developing midos is of no concern, if regard for other people’s rights or property is not a value they hold, then their children seeing them behaving in the ways illustrated above can just continue to do the same. However, if we do hold, if only minimally, to the basic Jewish concept of  “do not do unto others that which you would not have done to yourself,” and have that philosophy influence our own behaviors, then we will set the sterling example for children that seems optimal.

I often think we can take a lesson from Rudy Guiliani. While perhaps not a fan of many of his policies, I think the way he went about changing the social atmosphere in New York City deserves a yasher koach! When the city was overrun with crime and people were afraid to walk in the streets even in midtown, Guiliani chose to clamp down on the uninvited window washer people. I must admit it seemed ridiculous at the time, with so much intense crime going on, this is what is targeted to control? However, it was the proverbial stone causing a ripple effect. That one small act resulted in ever widening circles of civility until the city became safely alive again.

A number of years ago, I was asked by a woman who had been the head of an Early Childhood department in a yeshiva for many years, to prepare a presentation for her staff. She was concerned that the teachers weren’t treating the children with respect. I developed something called “Respect: It Goes Both Ways” and have presented this workshop many times. I have even developed a parallel presentation with the same name, but geared for administrators to staff. The basic theme and lesson of both is: if one wants to be treated with respect, then one must treat others with respect as well.

So, make sure you say please and thank you to your children and make sure they hear you saying it to others. Hold the door; smile! Offer help, when someone drops something, help them pick it up. When in public places, speak in an appropriate tone. When your children are in public places, remind them to behave properly and to respect others’ rights. Drive with care and consideration!

On several occasions, I have witnessed waitstaff approaching parents to say things like, “It was such pleasure waiting on your son/daughter. You have no idea what it’s like with some children.” It feels really good to get a comment like that. It’s up to you to determine if your children will be seen as pleasures or pains, welcome where they go, or dreaded. It helps to remember that respect can’t be taught, it grows where it is planted—and parents are the ones who introduce and nurture the seedlings.

By Nancy Silberman Zwiebach

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