Society at Sea: A Reflection on Civility

I am relaxing on a teak chair on the promenade deck of a luxurious cruise ship, a drink in one hand, a paperback in the other. An elegant new hat is keeping the late afternoon sun out of my eyes. Back home in Maryland, snow is falling on a dreary landscape; here in the Caribbean, the gentle sea breezes are warm and welcome. A shadow falls across my lap, and I glance up to see my husband—unfamiliar in white linen trousers, silk shirt, and Panama hat—pausing during his stroll to say hello and ask for a sip of my drink.

It is the first cruise we have embarked on in nearly 27 years of married life, and we are enjoying it mightily. Why did we wait so long? It was not seasickness we feared, nor shipwreck, nor pirates, nor dread of food-borne viruses that occasionally sicken unfortunate passengers. It was not even the thought of our temporarily parentless teenagers finding time-honored ways to celebrate our absence.

It was fear of being trapped for eight days among savages.

* * *

Civility…is the set of sacrifices we make for the sake of our common journey with others, and out of love and respect for the very idea that there are others.

—Stephen Carter, Civility

I was born during the last decade in which men routinely wore hats in public and women would not dream of visiting department stores bereft of gloves, hat, girdle, and stockings. One did not normally hear cursing in public, and children, when they were allowed out in the streets, were kept on a tight leash to keep them from annoying others. Adults were addressed by their last name by virtually everyone who wasn’t a family member or close friend; most meals were eaten decorously at home, with the family—not off plastic trays at fast-food restaurants among grubby strangers.

The Fifties was the same decade that gave us An Affair to Remember, in which Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr romance their way across the Atlantic Ocean on a pleasure cruise, always beautifully dressed, always beautifully behaved—as were most of their fellow passengers. For perhaps one minute in the film, Kerr sports a modest swimsuit; during the rest of the journey, she is wearing elegant afternoon dresses or glittering evening gowns; Grant is impeccably dressed in evening clothes—or, if he’s feeling informal, a suit.

Did cruises like this still exist? I longed for the clothes, the manners, the style, the civilized approach to living films like this personify. I wanted a break from teen culture—from the endless magazine covers featuring Paris and Britney and Brad, from the nonstop blast of the films, music, and clothing of teendom. I wanted an escape from Viagra ads, pornographic pop-ups, and clerks who—after a quick glance at my credit card—call me by a first name I haven’t used in decades. While I could live without Cary Grant, I wanted the company of adults who behaved the way adults once routinely behaved; I feared being trapped with boozing, thong-wearing, “Spring Break” types, with men who were more Ray Barone than Cary Grant, and with parents who allowed their offspring—faces smeared with ice cream—to race around uncontrolled.

Were it not for films like An Affair to Remember and Now Voyager, those of us born after, say, 1960, would scarcely realize that once upon a time, nearly everyone wore what were once called “street clothes” whenever they stepped out of their homes. This sartorial splendor was observed by virtually everyone, rich or poor, black or white. In his book, If It Ain’t Got That Swing, Mark Gauvreau Judge quotes a former resident of Washington, D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood who recalls that, during the 1930s, “You couldn’t walk down the street without a tie.”

Once upon a time, the idea that one made sacrifices in personal comfort and desires on behalf of total strangers was taken for granted. As Stephen Carter notes in Civility, when Americans began traveling on trains 150 years ago, it was accepted that passengers would set limits on their behavior—to refrain from loud talking, for instance—otherwise, the trip would be unbearable for everyone. Civility, he writes, “[c]alls on us to sacrifice for others as we travel through life. And second, it makes the ride tolerable.”

Unfortunately, many moderns now believe themselves to be on private expeditions, and thus no longer need consider the comfort of others—which is why most journeys today (both literal and figurative) are intolerable.

The sheer barbarism of everyday life is what finally tempted me to spend a week aboard a cruise liner. But it would have to be the right ship—one that had sturdy rules of decorum, and passengers not only willing to observe them but who also realized how much pleasure could be obtained when everyone agreed to play by them. And so I signed up for a cruise package advertised by a conservative magazine, to take place on a five-star ship—one which presumably would not attract those who wished to spend the week drinking themselves into the wrong beds; or worse, wearing flip-flops to dinner.

* * *

I pull open the drapes and peer out the window. The lights of Nassau are just coming into view. One of the advantages of a less expensive stateroom on the lowest level (in what we jokingly call “steerage”) is the fun of watching the waves slap up almost against one’s window.

The bed is positioned just beneath the porthole, and I prop myself up on my elbows to watch as our ship is guided into the dock beside two other huge cruise ships. One of these ships caters to a younger crowd that likes to party; the other, to families with young children.

After breakfast, we depart for a half-day of shopping and sightseeing. We wander about the streets gazing at government buildings washed in pale pink and stroll through the outdoor marketplace. When we purchase a shirt from a neatly dressed street vendor, she thanks us with dignity, adding, “Have a blessed day.” In America, of course, she would be attacked for daring to impose her religion on defenseless shoppers.

Later, in an island restaurant, we discreetly observe two family groups at another table whose conversation reveals they are from one of the other ships. They are dressed in cut-offs and T-shirts with vulgar messages involving sharks, and they are sneering at the “fuddy-duddy” atmosphere of our ship. They are glad—so glad—they are not cruising with us. One of them breaks off long enough to wipe her mouth on the back of her hand and shout to her offspring (one of whom has just tripped a waiter). After lunch, we return to our ship. We are glad—so glad—to be on the fuddy-duddy ship.

* * *

Miss Manners’ mother always told her to travel either first or third class [while] crossing the Atlantic Ocean, in the days when that was done properly, with bouillon at eleven on the promenade deck and tea at five in the salon.

—Judith Martin, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

We are spending our third day at sea exploring the ship. There are shuffleboard players on one deck, tennis players on another. Dozens of passengers are relaxing in and around a pool. We wander through the elegant library, casino, movie theater, spa, and shops. Everywhere are huge bouquets of tropical flowers; everywhere are members of the well-trained crew, none of whom is snapping gum or sporting tongue jewelry. I pay a quick visit to the Internet cafe to e-mail my two teenage sons. “Don’t forget to feed the dog,” I write. (Don’t forget to go to school!)

No one has offered us bouillon, but at 4 P.M., we locate the salon where tea is served with dainty sandwiches and pastries. Our table is next to a window, and as we nibble on tiny salmon and cream cheese sandwiches, we watch the late afternoon sun set the waves aglitter. We begin to wonder if it is absolutely necessary to return to our jobs, our teenagers, our servant-free home, and Maryland’s brutal winter.

A few minutes later, as we head back to our stateroom, we witness a shocking sight. A man enters the food court dressed in a wet swimsuit, a towel slung over his shoulder. He evidently hopes to grab a quick meal before the restaurant closes for the day and did not factor in enough time to change into his clothes. The fact that ship rules prohibit the wearing of swimsuits in restaurants clearly does not concern him. Other diners glare as he settles his soggy buttocks at a table. Back home, the same diners might have shrugged in resigned irritation at such behavior, but a few days of civilized living have gone a long way; someone who displays contempt for others now stands out like an infected thumb.

* * *

You made a striking impression over there as you stood at the door looking for me.

—Paul Henreid to Bette Davis in Now Voyager (1942)

Needless to say, Davis isn’t wearing shorts and a cropped T-shirt reading “Booty Call.” For her first dinner with Henreid, as they cruise toward Rio and romantic complications, she’s wearing a white chiffon evening gown with a glittering cape, diamond earrings, and silver sandals.

My own choice for dinner is a lavender silk pants suit and diamond earrings; my husband is handsomely attired in his Navy dress uniform. We arrive in the dining room to find tables covered in white linen tablecloths topped with blue and white china, sparkling crystal, and fresh flowers. A pianist is filling the air with the music of Cole Porter. After greeting our dinner companions, we pick up our menus to choose among several gourmet offerings. A wine steward arrives to fill our glasses.

Our companions include one of the editors from the magazine sponsoring the cruise; a former CEO and his wife; and a former governor who, as it turns out, knows my boss. (It has not taken my husband and me long to realize that we’re just about the youngest, poorest, and least-accomplished couple on board.) As the first course arrives, we discuss politics, the war in Iraq, and the day’s speakers. As we converse, we experience something almost unknown in modern life: differences of opinion expressed civilly. Nobody is angry, nobody is shouting, nobody is tossing verbal grenades designed to destroy an opponent’s argument (along with his sangfroid).

As I polish off my chocolate souffle, it occurs to me that this dinner is a far cry from our last, rushed meal at home with the kids: a pizza washed down with Coke in front of a rerun of Law & Order, tossing bits of pepperoni to the dog. (Note to self: Begin serving more meals in the dining room and fewer in front of the TV.)

* * *

All I want from you is a little seevility, and that of the commenest goddamnest kind.

—attributed to the mate of a New Bedford whaler to his ill-tempered captain

We have taken a tour bus to a white sand beach on the French-controlled section of the island (the Dutch control the other half), where we enjoy an afternoon of parasailing, ocean swimming, and sunbathing on lounge chairs, sipping “girly drinks,” as my husband calls them. We are relaxed and at peace—until the return of barbarism in the form of nude sunbathers. They have their own clothing-optional beach nearby but have chosen to wander over onto ours. Presumably they realize that not everyone is interested in unobstructed views of their sagging breasts and wrinkled buttocks, and the sight of them is a reminder of why even the photos of Playboy models are airbrushed.

As well, going about unclothed leads to behavior that—like nudity—ought to occur in private. On the boat from which we parasail, two young women are naked except for thong-style bikini bottoms. They are flirting with a male crew member, whose eyes go out on stalks when the women lean over the railing to observe marine life. He suddenly runs across the deck to plant enthusiastic kisses on the buttocks of one of these fair maidens, who shrieks in delight. It gets worse. Get a room, I think automatically.

These young people, and those wandering naked about the beach, personify the ultimate in incivility, for what could be more uncivil than forcing strangers to view one’s undressed body, or one’s sexual excitement? They either know they offend others and do not care, or—worse—they’re not even aware that they offend, because the feelings, wishes, and beliefs of others don’t register on their radars. I suspect they’d be amused but ultimately indifferent if told that—out of consideration for others—they ought to wear clothes in public and have sex in private.

And it’s no wonder: We live in a culture that has turned solipsism into a virtue. Cell phones and iPods allow us to ignore our neighbors more easily and assume that interaction with and concern for others, at home or in public, is entirely optional. Judges encourage the celebration of the individual at the expense of the group by demanding, for instance, that libraries admit people who live on the streets, no matter how drunk, no matter how disruptive, no matter how many children are exposed to the pornography they view on library computers.

As the sun begins to set, we gratefully reboard our ship, leaving the nudists behind. We go through the nightly adventure of trying to shower on a slightly rocking ship before beginning the ceremony of dressing for dinner—for our own pleasure, yes, and for the sake of companions we have yet to meet.

* * *

Women and children first!

—Edward John Smith, captain of the Titanic, after the ship strikes an iceberg

Following dinner, strolling arm-in-arm on the promenade deck, we catch fragments of music drifting from an upper deck lounge, where people are enjoying conversation, cocktails, and dancing. To our amusement, the music is the theme song from the film, Titanic. We glance up at the lifeboats, recalling the first day’s drill. The waves are a bit higher this evening, and I consider the possibility of a bad storm, or a huge wave striking the ship, forcing evacuation. This might actually be rather fun. I’m a strong swimmer, and the waters are reasonably warm, if it turns out there are not enough lifeboats to go around. Helicopters would undoubtedly arrive before anybody actually drowned, or became a lucky shark’s dinner.

But as my husband and I turn about and head for the stern, I begin to wonder: If we really did have to abandon ship—if, say, terrorists blew a hole in the side and destroyed half the lifeboats—would it still be a case of “women and children first” as it was in 1912?

Somehow I doubt it. Even during Victorian and Edwardian times, when Englishmen were taught to “die like gentlemen” on behalf of women and children, it wasn’t unusual for women to be left to fend for themselves. As for the Titanic—while many of the most powerful men of the day (along with many equally brave men traveling third class) willingly sacrificed their lives in order to save women and children, it’s also true that many crew members managed to save their own skins, leaving hundreds of passengers to perish.

If this is what happened during a more chivalrous era, when men were taught to sacrifice for those weaker than themselves, how likely is it that the strong of our own day—largely untrained in the idea of sacrifice—would not shove aside the weak in order to save themselves?

But then I remember September 11. The events of that day revealed that people trained in duty and sacrifice—policemen, firemen, priests, and soldiers, even people who lack such training—can still be counted on to act heroically. Still, I cannot help concluding that, given the disintegration of the idea that people ought to make even small sacrifices for one another, in a crisis it would be, for the most part, a case of “every man for himself.”

* * *

It’s really almost overdone, isn’t it? Moonlight on the water, stars in the sky, music. They might have at least had the decency to omit the music.

—Alice Faye to Robert Young in Stowaway (1936)

It is the final night of the cruise. My husband and I have finished dinner, which included a spectacular Baked Alaska and the singing of Auld Lang Syne. We are now taking a last stroll beneath the stars, already beginning to dread the return to ordinary, uncivil life—beginning with the flight that will carry us back to Maryland, with its plastic food, screaming children, and (mostly) badly dressed passengers.

Is there a way to recapture ordinary, everyday civility, so that we no longer must spend large sums of money traveling to essentially closed communities to achieve it?

I doubt it—unless a lot of things happen that probably won’t. For starters, the gatekeepers of popular culture—the creators of films and sitcoms, music and fashions—earn too much money degrading the culture to concern themselves with helping re-civilize it. They are so powerful it’s hard to imagine stopping them, short of changing our form of government.

That leaves parents, schools, and churches—traditional shapers of morals and manners—to do the difficult job of turning natural-born savages into something less so.

Schools might consider reviving deportment lessons (although such lessons might strike a jarring note if they follow classes that teach students how to place condoms on bananas).

Pastors could give sermons on civility; as a start, they should explain to parishioners why, when they gather in communal worship of our Lord, they should not arrive with “bed-head hair,” read to their children during the homily, or answer their cell phones during Communion.

Parents can teach their children why it’s morally correct to dress and behave appropriately, both at home and in public; why they should dress for dinner, at least on Sundays, and not leave their sneakers on dimly lit stairs.

Here is what else we should tell our children: It is in the Christian tradition that we find the words “Love thy neighbor,” from which civility and sacrifice spring. For Christ, this meant suffering and death on a cross; for us, His followers, it means restraining our desire to jump the line, wear soiled clothes to the mall, or curse at a neighbor’s offspring. It means everything from helping the crime victim lying injured on the road to not parking in a handicapped space. It means remembering—every day—that we’re making the journey through life, not alone, but in the company of others for whom Christ died.

If we do these things, we can create at least pockets of civility in an increasingly barbarous world.

* * *

We are back in Maryland—back to the dirty snow, to roads clogged with irritable drivers, to grocery store clerks who talk to each other instead of us when we pick up bread and milk.

At home, we step over the pile of empty pizza cartons in the garage, greet our kids, and check to see if the dog is still alive. After a quick hello, the boys return to their computer games, and my tired husband goes straight to bed. Not me. I am already missing my new friends, the civilized conversation, and the beautifully served meals.

I need a cheap and concentrated civility fix. After changing into leggings and a sweatshirt (I’m alone, after all) and popping some corn, I shove a DVD into the player. Up springs Cary Grant, who has just met Deborah Kerr—gorgeously attired in a cream and tangerine evening gown—on a cruise ship headed for the French Riviera.

Says Grant: “I said to myself, ‘Don’t beautiful women travel anymore?’ And then I saw you. And I was saved—I hope.”

Kerr gives him an arch look. “Tell me,” she asks, “Have you been getting results with a line like that?”

Probably not, but what does it matter? He is the most beautifully behaved, most civilized man alive.


  • Anne Morse

    Anne Morse is a senior writer with the Wilberforce Foundation.

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