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    Acceptable behavior?

    The virtues of being polite and courteous have fallen by the wayside. You got a problem with that?


    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001

    Donald Kiniston raises the Clearwater Memorial Causeway bridge every 20 minutes, its leaves standing high for about 5 minutes, long enough for vessels to continue their journey between Clearwater Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico.

    For four years, boaters have appreciated this bridge tender's clockwork precision. It's the motorists who give him a hard time. They honk their horns, curse his name, give him what he calls "one-finger communication."

    Still, he was unfazed -- until six months ago.

    Too impatient to wait for a boat to pass, a driver in an SUV darted around Kiniston's lowered gate. As the bridge rose, the motorist hit the gas and performed a stunt reminiscent of the television show Dukes of Hazzard.

    "His rear wheels left the ground," said Kiniston. "I don't know who was more scared: me or him."

    With each passing decade, tradition and values decline. But this is the era, experts say, in which civility is under assault. And Pinellas County isn't immune.

    Mobile phone use has become so annoying that churches and synagogues have spoken out against them. Restaurants have been transformed into playgrounds. The thought of children using courtesy titles has long past.

    "Today, most students probably wouldn't know the difference between Emily Post and Emily Dickinson," said Robert Snyder, a professor of American studies at the University of South Florida.

    It's the price we pay for living in places that are so large, so disconnected. Neighbors know neighbors in small towns. But in population-rich areas -- take Pinellas County, which 921,482 people call home -- there's little consequence for being rude.

    "If you're driving on U.S 19 and somebody cuts you off, you don't have a social investment in being nice to them," said George Sherman, a behavior specialist at Walsingham Elementary School in Largo. Sherman ought to know. He helped develop the school district's Commitment to Character program, which teaches a third of Pinellas elementary students about respect, responsibility, honesty and self-motivation -- traits that once were taught within the home.

    Today, even society's most sacred moments are being chipped away.

    Because adults can't seem to unplug from the business of their lives for even an hour or two, sermons are increasingly interrupted by the high-pitched ring of mobile phones. Calvary Baptist Church posted a sign at the entrance of the Clearwater church thanking people for turning off their phones. First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks flashes a similar message on huge screens moments before the sermon. And Temple B'nai Israel has added a note to the bottom of its newsletter asking members to at least turn their ringers to silent mode before entering the sanctuary.

    During Yom Kippur, a High Holy Day, a phone rang during a sermon and angered at least one congregant, who wrote a letter to the synagogue.

    "We still hear them go off," said Sherri Joyer, executive director of Temple B'nai Israel. "It's a distraction, and you're in a place of worship for maybe an hour and a half. Is it really that necessary for a phone to ring in that period of time?"

    Snyder, the USF professor, also noted how mobile-phone users almost seem oblivious to the fact that people can overhear their conversations.

    "People with cell phones are in their own little worlds," said Snyder. "They carry on the most private intimate conversations in public, as if they were isolated and immune to what else is going on around them."

    Society's lack of civility has spilled over to restaurants.

    Jeff Isel, owner of G. Bellini's Ristorante & Bar in Clearwater, has had people order clams and then send them back because they say they're allergic to them. But what really irks him is when families use his restaurant as a playground.

    A man recently sat down at a table with two toddlers and a box of Cheerios. The children munched on the cereal and pelted nearby customers with it. Isel walked over to the table and set a plate down, figuring it would help. But that just angered the man, who accused him of discrimination.

    "It's not the children who aren't well-behaved," Isel said. "It's the parents who don't understand."

    It is not likely to get any better, the experts say. With time, traditional values crumble. The difference today, Snyder said, is the decline has accelerated because almost anything is acceptable.

    John Denmark, 52, has seen the change firsthand.

    "I've got kids in my church who call me John," said Denmark, pastor of Seminole United Methodist Church. "I tell them over and over again to please refer to me as pastor, but they don't understand titles."

    For Denmark, it is a matter of respect.

    He was taught to say "Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am" to his elders. But these days, he rarely hears the words.

    Recently, he walked outside and asked a teenager who doesn't attend his church to stop hurling obscenities while young children played nearby.

    "Go to hell," came the reply.

    "Some of these guys," Denmark joked, "don't realize the power I have."

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