Last spring, Dan Mengedoht decided it was time to do some volunteer work, so the real estate agent and Charleston resident visited a local nonprofit to offer his services.

The volunteer coordinator was busy at the time, so a clerk asked Mengedoht to call and set up an appointment to volunteer another time, which he did.

After clearing his work schedule, he showed up at the designated time -- only to discover the truck for collecting donations that he was supposed to have been volunteering on already had pulled away.

Mengedoht expected to meet the volunteer coordinator face to face, to receive an apology, a little gratitude, some encouragement. Instead, he was merely invited by the clerk to make another appointment.

"I kind of got mad about it," he said. He purposefully skipped the rescheduled meeting, prompting the volunteer coordinator to call him. But it was too late. "It could have been handled more professionally," Mengedoht said. "Being polite and thoughtful carries a lot of weight. It's goodwill."

Such goodwill requires a respectful exchange between parties, however, and many in the South are worried that it is vanishing along with the cotillion ball.

The manners for which Charleston and the rest of the South are famous -- the pineapple of hospitality, the gracious "yes, sir" and "no, ma'am," the handwritten thank-you cards -- are in decline, observers say, reflecting a general deterioration that is a consequence of changing times and attitudes.

It's part of a complex social dynamic that extends well beyond the South, provoking regret, relief and nostalgia.

'Fast-food effect'

No longer can we rely on a firm handshake or neighborly familiarity, according to etiquette blogger, author and social guru K. Cooper Ray, a Charleston resident.

"I blame the transportation revolution," Ray said. "Once upon a time, we were citizens of a small community, we answered to neighbors and family." There was a certain individual accountability. "Now niceties can be forgone with impunity. There's a good chance you'll never see that person again."

It's the "fast-food effect," he said, the speeded-up pace of life that discourages the formalities of civil exchange.

"Unfortunately, that epidemic is now coming to the South." The bastion of politeness is undergoing a social transformation, in part because of non-natives who are unfamiliar with Southern ways, Ray said.

Cindy Grosso, who runs the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette, agreed that civility is waning, in Charleston and beyond.

The city has maintained its reputation for hospitality largely because of its history and traditions, she said. And perhaps because of the heat, which slows people down.

"When you go a little slower, you do have time to say good morning, you do have time to hold the door," Grosso said.

Nationwide, good public behavior is deteriorating, and our modern life, with its growing dependence on impersonal social media, is part of the problem, she said. Quick exchanges often come across as abrupt and rude, even if intentions are good, Grosso said. And that can lead to misunderstandings.

"There is a direct link, proportional to how you handle yourself and how you handle others," she said. The decline of manners, therefore, is largely a result of our own shortcomings.

"If you give somebody an attitude, the first thing you'll get back is an attitude," Grosso said. "Really what you've done is taught others that it's OK for them to interact with you that way."

Social norms

Von Bakanic, a sociology professor at the College of Charleston, pointed out that the definition of good etiquette is constantly evolving.

Today, we have cell phone and email etiquette. The delivery of handwritten thank-you notes is no longer the norm.

"There are so many new technological changes that have caused us to need different rules for interaction," Bakanic said.

And what works in one region might not apply in another. In South Carolina, we expect children to address adults with "sir" and "ma'am," but up North those titles of respect might ring false, she said.

Occasionally breaking the rules doesn't necessarily qualify you as ill-mannered. "Manners are deviant only if you break them all the time," Bakanic said. "Eating with your hands is supposed to be unmannerly. But everyone eats with his hands sometimes. It's when you do it all the time that it becomes a more serious violation."

As a form of social norms and rules, manners vary according to era and economic class, Bakanic said. Historically, the people who make the rules are the affluent, those members of society with power and influence.

Middle-class people are taught that, to meet these standards, they must comply with the rules of the rich.

Consequently, as people lose their social standing in a difficult economy, and when they are removed from the system that rewards good manners, they have less incentive to obey the laws of etiquette, Bakanic said.

Change will come

A few months ago, Mengedoht was showing a couple of clients some beach houses they were interested in renting, and eventually buying. "I drove them all over the Isle of Palms, then on the second day Folly Beach, then on the third day Seabrook," he said.

At about the same time, Standard & Poor's downgraded the U.S. credit rating and Mengedoht's clients got cold feet.

Despite efforts to check in with them, the real estate agent could not connect. There was no "thank you" for the time and effort he had invested, no polite dismissal. Just silence.

"They're not from Charleston, they just don't get the manners thing that's innately bred in all of us here in Charleston," he said.

The notion that good manners must be cultivated is much on the mind of Kevin Baird, pastor of Legacy Church in West Ashley. Baird, who takes note of the relationship between the words and actions we employ and the way we think and feel, is preparing a Thanksgiving sermon on the subject.

Good manners have a biblical foundation -- in I Corinthians 13, for example, in which Paul writes that charity toward others is paramount. Implied in the Bible's call for charity and love is a sense of decorum and kindness, Baird said.

In Luke 17, Jesus heals 10 lepers, but only one -- the Samaritan -- returns to give thanks. "Were not all ten cleansed?" Jesus asks, perturbed. "Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?"

For Baird, this is another example of the moral obligation to be courteous to others, especially those in authority.

"What happens is we've raised a generation up to believe they are equals, and that's just not the case," he said.

But change in what is considered socially correct behavior is not a recent phenomenon, Baird said. The South was once a more isolated and parochial place, resistant to outside influence.

Then came the civil rights movement and the power of mass media. Horrific, brutal images of the South were broadcast on television for the world to see. The social status quo in the South was challenged and ultimately up-ended. And, as with most things, the results were mixed, Baird said.

"It changes things that need to be changed, but it also changes things that don't need to be changed."

A little effort

Lois Hearn, founder and director of Charleston-based Your Manners, said she has noticed a deterioration in good etiquette lately, as well as an increase in the number of business clients she gets. They are referred by their employers who want them to improve their interpersonal skills, Hearn said.

The signs of decline are visible, she said. Table manners are missing (as family meals become less regular); hospitality falls short (as people are spread thin by more and more activities and obligations); RSVPs and written thank-you notes are few and far between among people on the run.

But a little effort up front can pay off nicely, Hearn said.

One of her clients recently applied for a job, but he didn't get it. Nevertheless, he wrote the company a thank-you note. A few months later he got a call. The person hired by the company didn't work out; was there still interest in the job?

The thank-you note had made a difference, Hearn said. It had helped him stand out from the crowd.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Visit him on Facebook at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.