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June 27, 2007

For the Love of Couth

Couth. One of my favorite words, not just because of its definition but just because of how it sounds. Another favorite word is rogue, perhaps most famously used on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, when Chuckles the Clown met his demise when he was dressed as a giant peanut and a rogue elephant tried to shell him.

But I digress.

Couth, as a word and concept, sadly seems to have fallen out of favor in our culture. Couth relates to people and their behavior, and means refinement or sophistication. In other words, knowing what behavior is and is not appropriate in public or social situations, or, put even more simply, minding your manners.

When I was young, my mother would often exclaim, "You kids are the most uncouth generation ever!" She thought it because we would openly discuss subjects with both male and female friends that her generation to this day would not bring up in conversation with anyone. I thought at the time that our openness was positive, demonstrating a greater intimacy and authenticity and healthiness than previous generations who seemed to simply either put on a happy mask, or soldier on and suffer in silence.

But now that I'm the older generation and see how where the slippery slope from couthness has taken us, I wonder whether my mother was onto something when she mourned the loss of couth.

I see uncouth behavior today almost every time I leave my house. It's on the way to work, smokers flicking their ashes onto my car, or tossing their still-lit cigarette butt onto the road. "Uncouth" flashes across my brain and "litterer!" involuntary emits from my mouth. It's walking down the street, dodging the spittle hurled from the mouths of passersby onto my path (and a few times on my foot) or having a shop door slammed in my face by the man in front of me who's in too big of a hurry to hold the door open for a woman.

It's in the grocery store, as I narrowly avoid a head-on collision with a shopper wildly wielding a cart at near g-force while talking loudly on a cell phone, never noticing I even exist, or as I'm startled by the goodbye of one salesclerk to a colleague going off shift "Hey B(fill in the blank with a word that sounds like witch) -- get your fat (fill in the blank with a word for a person's rear end) out of here!" Or in the airport where I'm forced to eavesdrop on the cell phone conversation of a mother coaching her daughter undergoing fertility treatments and in-vitro fertilization on how to lie to people who ask her if triplets run in the family.

It's at mealtimes, where people are too busy (or have forgotten how) to use a knife and fork and break bread and share conversation together, but simply grab a sandwich, inhale it standing up, and burp loudly on the way out the door.  And alas, it's even at church, where I sit beside Blackberry-thumbing A-types who answer emails in between sips of bottled water (are water bottles the "sippy cup" for our generation?), too preoccupied with self to engage in the service at hand.

As an old fogey, I now look at this behavior and no longer think it symbolizes freedom or authenticity or even a newfound sense of casualness. It doesn't mean we are more intimate ("I belch loudly in front of you because you are like family!"). It isn't an appropriate form of taking dominion over the earth ("Cigarette butts are biodegradable! I don't want that nasty thing in my car!" or "Would you rather I spit in a tissue that I put back in my pocket? That's gross and a waste of paper!")

What the new uncouth demonstrates to me is rather a selfishness, a lack of respect for others or the environment, and an overall laziness or sloth. Plus, it's mostly just plain rude. 

One of my friends is sending her 8 year old to manners camp this summer. He will learn, among other things, how to properly greet people and make introductions and small talk at social functions, address his elders, set a table and use the correct silverware, dinnerware and glassware, open doors for others, and other basic rules of etiquette.

I wouldn't mind going myself, and taking much of our society with me!

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Gina Dalfonzo

Tangent Alert: Martha, thanks for reminding me of one of the true classic TV epsiodes of all time. "Chuckles Bites the Dust" is one of those that never fail to earn guffaws. Just the memory of it made me grin. :-)

(Another one is the "Twilight Zone" episode where William Shatner sees a gremlin eating the wing of his plane. Even after seeing it two or three times, my mother and I still completely lose it every time. Shatner's reaction to seeing the monster in the five-and-dime-store suit -- you can almost see the zipper! -- stuck to the window like a suction-cup Garfield is a joy to behold.)

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