The rules of modern etiquette have changed in today’s world. How do you go about getting what you want when you want it without offending anyone along the way? Under the constant onslaught of other people’s everyday intrusions – from spam SMSs to strangers getting too close for comfort on public transport – are we all turning into grumbling misanthropes?

Has the world always been this way, or have things been getting steadily worse? And are the people around us as bothered by us as we are by them? What, in the name of civilisation, has happened to good manners?

Etiquette expert Anna Musson says the most prevalent issue with modern-day manners is that we have become too focused on ourselves, facilitated by the ability to shut out the world on our smartphones and disengage.

“One of the key downsides of this ability is that we are losing our empathy, our conversation skills and our ability to get along with others,” says Musson, founder of The Good Manners Company, which advises business people on how to boost success through exceptional conduct.

And while there’s never any excuse for bad behaviour, miscommunications and misperception are often what cause conflict, says psychologist Peter Doyle. “One of the most common issues is simply not listening properly or not paying attention,” he says. “Typically we are chronically ‘overloaded’ and not processing [external stimuli] as well as we need to.”

Do you use the ‘thank you’ wave in traffic? And do you let your phone ring out while someone is speaking with you? It seems when it comes to treating those around us well, it is the small things that really matter.

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How do you react when this happens?
How do you react when this happens?

You’re waiting patiently in a queue at the supermarket checkout when a respectable-looking lady pushes in front of you.

Sulk or instantly get angry. Overreact and be sarcastic or aggressive.

“Assuming the best of people, however faux it may be, is often your best approach,” counsels Musson, who suggests you assume the queue jumper was oblivious. “Point and sweetly say with a loud voice and a smile, ‘I’m not sure if you noticed but the queue starts over there.’”

According to Doyle, there’s no escaping queue-jumping everywhere from airports to ticket lines, or when people push their way into clearly reserved seats. He suggests, “The trick is to ask yourself: in the big picture of my life, how much will that matter? Then let it go. Even try laughing at the absurdity of the situation.”

If it really does matter to you, then be polite but assertive. For example, “Excuse me, but I was actually next in line. I’d let you go ahead, but I’m running late, thank you!” If they respond badly, then make the choice that suits the consequence. Do you really want to escalate the situation to an argument in public with a stranger? Always weigh things up and ask yourself, “Are the struggle, stress and anxiety worth the outcome?”

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