- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 30, 2005

At the risk of oversimplification, here’s what’s wrong with the world today: bad manners.

Bad manners are the source of wars, gang violence, political scandal, road rage and marital disputes. Bad manners mean bad customer service, bad neighborhoods, even bad breath.

Case in point: the superstore parking lot, where I wait and wander in a quest for a space to beach the van. It’s a Saturday, so I’m not eager to join the throngs of shoppers looking for lawn furniture, new bikes and flip flops in one convenient stop, but I have a list and an hour set aside for errands.

At the risk of behaving like a stalker, I wait by the store’s exit doors for departing shoppers who might lead me to a potential parking space. A stealthy and experienced parking-lot scout, I know this strategy doesn’t always work. Some folks lead you down aisle A only to cut through a row of cars to their vehicle, inconveniently parked in aisle B. By the time you get to the actual location of the open space, it’s too late.

Not this time. I see a happy shopper heading out to the parking lot. Her car is about halfway down the aisle. I follow her, giving her a smile and a wave while I wait for her to load a cart full of items into her trunk. My turn signal indicates my intent to occupy her parking space.

I have left plenty of room for the driver of the departing car to maneuver — more space than she needs, in fact — an act of good manners. The next thing I know, a car at the end of the aisle ahead of me backs up, stopping just short of my front bumper.

“She’s got to be kidding,” I mutter. “This woman can’t possibly be planning to park in my spot. I’m sitting here with my blinker on.”

I honk the horn politely at first — a slight “beep beep” to attract her attention.

She sticks her arm out the window and flags me to go around her. The audacity of this woman is astounding.

“Unbelievable,” I say incredulously. This time I lay on the horn long and loud but the poacher doesn’t budge. Next thing I know, the woman loading her shopping bags slams her trunk and makes a hasty exit (no doubt avoiding the possibility she’ll play the role of “innocent victim” in this scenario) and Parking Space Poacher zips into the vacancy.

I’m stunned at this display of brashness and bad manners. More than stunned — I’m hopping mad. I inch forward and flail my hands in an effort to show her I’m upset. She puts her head down, busying herself inside her car until I drive away.

Meanwhile, the owner of the car in the space next to hers arrives, quickly backs out and drives away. Justice is mine.

I park my van and walk into the superstore a few feet behind the poacher. “That was really rude,” I say.

“There was plenty of room to go around me,” poacher says.

“I was obviously waiting for that parking space,” I say. “I had my blinker on.”

“I’m sorry,” she says sarcastically, disappearing into the racks of clothes just inside the store.

“Actually, you’re not,” I say under my breath. Grrrr.

I’m not exactly proud of my reaction. Usually when this kind of thing happens to me, I smile and offer a silent prayer that the inconsiderate buffoon offending me will have a moment of enlightenment. I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt.

A truism about bad manners is: They’re contagious.

Teaching good manners to children probably was easier when more people practiced them. Unfortunately, polite society has devolved to such a degree that we’re mostly surrounded by examples of what not to do.

(“Son, do you see that young man wearing his pants below his hips with his underwear exposed? He’s spewing vulgar language at the girls across the street while tossing his trash on the ground and blowing cigarette smoke into the faces of his friends. Don’t do that when you grow up.”)

Not that my manners are always exemplary. Fortunately, my children often miss the irony of being told to remove their elbows from the table by a woman with corn flakes in her mouth.

Still, teaching good manners is one way to give children a leg up in the adult world. Simple habits such as looking at the person to whom they’re speaking, using people’s names in conversation (“I’m fine, Mrs. Smith. How are you?”), saying “please” and “thank you,” or holding a door for an elder are so uncommon as to be remarkable.

Not to mention, teaching good manners to children is one of the few things for which a parent actually can take credit.

Good looks? God’s work.

Intelligence? Nature, not nurture.

Perfect pitch? Double jointedness? Photographic memory? Sheer luck.

Manners, on the other hand, can be taught, a reminder of which I enjoyed recently when someone commented — again — on the mature and articulate way in which my daughter answered the phone and recorded a message.

Whether she remembers to deliver the phone message is another issue.

Then again, after I make my apologies for rudely neglecting to return the call in a timely fashion, it’s nice to hear that my daughter practiced what I preached.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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