Manners, Mormons, and the Swiss

By Daniel van Voorhis

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I know there are plenty of groups with requirements for enrollment in some kind of state or religious service upon reaching a certain age. But the two most common (or at least two of them that seem to take pride in their mandatory service) might be amongst the nicest people on the planet. They are the Swiss and Mormons. You might not dig Switzerland’s cool attitude towards the rest of Europe, but staying neutral since 1515 takes a mixture of serenity and chutzpah rarely seen amongst European states. Mormon theology might seem a bit kooky, and I’m against short-sleeved white dress shirts in general, but about 75% of them have trampolines in their backyards and will invite you over to hang out and drain the extra fridge full of Fanta and Root Beer.*

So here is my half-baked idea about reforming our manners and civil service; and why the Swiss and the Mormons are perhaps the best models for me to think about service, empathy, and how to behave in public.

Here are the logistics for my plan, the ASP (American Service Plan): at 16 everyone gets a draft card for the yearly draft (I suggest May because summer might be a good time to start working). All people between the age of 16 and 45 are required to serve the equivalent of two years, working a part time job in the service industry.

You may do this all at once (like a Mormon mission) or spread it out over a longer period of time (like Swiss army conscription). You can defer it twice, but, there is no buying your way out of it.

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You might be called to work as a server at Applebee’s or the Verizon call center. You might get the gig at the return desk at Target or mopping floors after hours at Costco.

So this half-baked idea might have some constitutional or economic issues. We can pound those out some other time. I’m all in for this ASP as a way to instill better manners, public decorum, and empathy amongst the general populace.

This is for the table of middle managers at El Torito, rolling their eyes because their server isn’t refilling their basket of chips and salsa fast enough.

This is for everyone groaning about being on hold for 20 minutes to get a bill straightened out (though the customer service representative is likely the last person at fault for any bureaucratic foul up).

This is for the lady ordering a medium “half-caf soy late with half a pump of sugar-free vanilla and extra cinnamon topping at 105 degrees in a large cup” with 9 people waiting behind her in line.

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This is for the group of college students hassling the lady at the all night diner, asking for more raspberry jam packets and giving special directions for the eggs that come with the $5.99 breakfast platter (and no, we can’t figure out one check on our own, so please make 5 different tabs). This woman might be working a double shift, wearing orthopedic shoes, and regularly getting stiffed on tips (often by college students who are asking for their eggs “over hard” and on a separate check).

For those who think themselves “above” such work, it humbles them and gives them some empathy for the servers and call center employees and other civil servants they have been dealing with, usually with less than stellar manners. And that is the point of it all. If you want to be a well-respected man or woman about town you should be judged, not just by your dress, but how you treat people in the service industry.

Your shoes might be shined, and your clothes might be bespoke or tailored off the rack. Maybe you are generally kind to people, but, maybe in your lofty station you are used to people waiting on you. It might be hard to imagine, but if you’re attractive, people are probably going out of their way more often for you; when someone dares not to, you might assume something is wrong with them. If you’re wealthy, you probably have more of the sycophantic type waiting on you; and so when the overworked cashier makes a gaffe that costs you some time, you are appalled.

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Nothing reverses whatever headway you’ve made in your sartorial elegance than being expressively annoyed with someone who is trying to serve you. Your prestige, net income, stock portfolio, and square footage can take a hike if you can’t smile through a service delay, long line, or delay on your refill.

And so, enter the American Service Plan. Like Mormons and the Swiss, a little required service might make us a little more pacific and amiable. Maybe it is untenable, or would require some kind of economic restructuring beyond what is both feasible and constitutional. Alright. It certainly is…. fine. If you’ve not worked in the service industry, or if you can’t smile through a frustrating line or misunderstood lunch order, there is no fashion tip or piece of charm that can dig you out of the hole you’ve put yourself in.

In short, be patient and kind to those who serve you. I know it can’t be compelled or regulated. I know there are situations that call for a scene or call for a manager. But let’s assume they are few and far between. Next time you ask to speak to a manager, do it to praise someone working hard. Next time you decide to fill out a comment card, do so to make a positive note. Smile and say thank you. Tip generously. In the words of 19th century Scottish poet John Mclaren, “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

All the Best,

The Man About Town

Written while listening to Jackson Browne “Solo Acoustic vol. 1” (2005)

*this was not researched or verified, but I’m pretty sure it’s close to true.

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