Suburban Turmoil – Where have all the manners gone?

I have always smiled at strangers.

Maybe it’s a product of my Southern upbringing, but when I find myself eye to eye with a fellow citizen at the post office, the grocery or the YMCA, I smile. I always have. I don’t expect recipients of my smile to write an ode in my honor or add me to their wills, but I do expect a smile back. To me, that’s just how it’s done.

Lately, though, I’ve found that my smiles are likely to be returned with blank stares or scowls of suspicion, as if I’m going to follow up with a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet or a coupon for Sport Clips. In fact, the reaction has gotten so bad that more than once, I’ve scuttled off to my car afterward, anxiously consulting the rearview mirror to see if I have spinach between my teeth or a sudden hairy growth on my chin. 

As far as I can tell, it’s not me. It’s you. A growing number of you simply aren’t willing to give your neighbor the pleasure of a simple smile-back.

To find out why, I took the issue to my online Suburban Turmoil readers and received replies from more than 100 people. Many agreed that the smile-back is going the way of the wooly mammoth, and they’re not happy about it. 

“I just can’t deal with getting scowls in return for my non-committal smiles,” one reader responded. “Believe me, I am not going to ask strangers to engage in conversation (I HATE that), but what’s wrong with a smile? So little effort, so much return!”

“I get soooo miffed when people don’t smile back,” wrote a reader named Maria. “I’m like, ‘Well, [email protected]$ (sic) you! I didn’t want to smile anyway!’” 

Other respondents tried to educate me on why my smiles shouldn’t be given out freely, instead awarded like Boy Scout merit badges to those who’ve truly earned them.

“Do we give gifts expecting something in return or do we give them for the sake of giving?” asked one reader. “A smile is, in its own way, a gift — an offering of friendship and acknowledgment. Not everyone is comfortable with giving them to random strangers — myself, I have to be in the mood.” 

“I often don’t smile back at people who are just passing by and smile at me,” reported another. “Even at work when people I don’t know walk by and smile, I often don’t reciprocate … I feel my smiles are for friends and family, or if I feel that you may really need one.” 

For many, the demise of the smile-back brought to mind the loss of other once-common courtesies — most notably, the wave-’n’-nod.

“You are driving along, and a car is coming toward you, and you lift a couple of fingers, up to a whole hand off the steering wheel, and you wave and nod,” explained reader Kelly, for those of you who are too big-city to understand what I’m talking about. “The other people in the car are waving and nodding as well.”

“There was even a set of rules over how many fingers to use depending on how well you know the person,” another reader reminisced. “Four-to-five-finger-wave was a neighbor or friend, one to two fingers was for people you didn’t know, but still wanted to be friendly. I miss that.”

These days, the wave-’n’-nod is likely to happen only between small-town residents and Mini Cooper drivers. I sometimes attempt it within my subdivision, but not many bother to return my halfhearted salute. And that, some of you say, is unacceptable.

“I’m the car-waver in my neighborhood,” announced reader Anissa. “If I wave at you from behind my steering wheel, you’d better damn well wave back … because I KNOW where you live!”

Where have all the manners gone? And what will it take to bring them back? Will our children’s children even know what it’s like to have someone lift a hand in thanks after being let into traffic? Will they know the quiet feeling of gratitude that comes when someone allows them to get off the elevator first?

They will if the Manner Maids have anything to do with it. In response to our increasingly surly society, these outspoken souls have waged a war on etiquetterrorism, aggressively calling out anyone who doesn’t acknowledge their random acts of courtesy.

“You’re welcome!” the Manner Maid will say loudly to the unfortunate person who walks through her opened door without offering thanks.

“Smile!” the Manner Maid chirps with a steely grin at her sour-faced neighbors. “It won’t cost you anything!” 

Strangely, the Manner Maid’s words rarely produce a smile-back. Instead, they elicit a strong urge to punch her in the gut.

It’s an urge that’s never actually followed, of course. That would be rude.