Column originally published July of 2007.
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A Matter Of Manners
There I was, on the phone, talking with another human being.
Her boss had asked her to set up an appointment with me. I didn't want to set up an appointment, but I had to. To make matters worse, the appointment times that were convenient for me were not convenient for her boss. I was frustrated, and I think she probably was, too.
But I didn't need to be so rude.
Without going into too much detail, I acted like a jackass. She maintained her courtesy and professionalism, and I behaved like a petulant child. If my mother had heard me talk that way to another person, she would have reddened my backside. My father would have just glared at me as he slowly and ominously took his belt off to intimidate the living daylights out of me.
In other words, I wasn't raised to act that rudely. When I think about it now, I’m ashamed.
So why did I act that way in the first place? It wasn't the first time I've done it, and it probably won’t be the last. I’ve got to stop doing that.
It’s not just me. I’ve noticed that good manners have become quite rare in recent years. I used to hear the expression, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” I don’t hear that anymore. It’s more, “Speak your mind,” or “Say what you really think.”
I’m all for people standing up for themselves, but I don’t think that a complete lack of civility solves very much very often.
Part of it, I believe, has to do with all the new modes of communication out there these days. I’ve found that when you’re dealing with another person face to face, there’s usually still some sense of civility and politeness. On the phone, people tend to be a bit more short. On a voice mail or an answering machine, people tend to get a little bit rude. And on the e-mail, man, people can just get plain nasty.
I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that the humanity is taken out of the communication process. When you write an e-mail or leave a voice message, it doesn't seem like you’re talking to another person, it seems like you’re talking to a machine. You tend to forget that another person will eventually read or listen to your message, and your message could very easily hurt, upset or enrage them. Guess what? They’ll probably want to hurt, upset or enrage you back. Everyone loses.
Why not send someone a heartfelt compliment in the e-mail once in a while? I do it from time to time. The person who gets it feels good about it, and it alleviates some of the guilt I feel for sending some ill-mannered e-mails in the past. Everyone wins.
But bad manners don’t just happen in Cyberland. I see them out and about every day. People scream at waitresses and refuse to tip because their steak was a little overdone. Obscene gestures from other drivers are pretty common. Every day I hear people boast about how they told someone off — and really let them have it. I see pretentious people gab away — loudly — on cell phones at times when it’s discourteous to those around them.
Are you cranking your music up at 3 a.m. with no consideration for your neighbors? Are you throwing the “f-word” around in public, with no thought of who might hear it? Don’t you know how rude that is? Don’t you care?
There are times when rudeness can be justified, though not condoned. If you call my house at some ungodly hour, the first words out of your mouth better be something along the lines of, “Sorry to bother you.” Your next words better contain an explanation of why you’re bothering me. If you follow that procedure, I’ll probably be polite to you. If you don’t, there’s a good chance that I will be impolite to you, and I won’t feel bad about it.
But I salute anyone who, unlike me, can keep his or her composure and maintain his or her civility when confronted with bad manners. Perhaps these people can help end the rudeness cycle.
I read an ABC World News Tonight poll taken a few years back that said somewhere around 85 percent of us think that simply using the words “please” and “thank you” when they are appropriate would make the world a better place.
That makes sense to me, but I have got to say, if 85 percent of us really believe that, then why aren't 85 percent of us doing it? We’re not.
Bad manners also make us less productive. According to a survey mentioned in a Washington Post article I read some time ago, the majority of employees in this country have missed work directly due to the rude, insensitive or disrespectful actions of a co-worker. I’m sure these absences are increased when that rude co-worker happens to be an employee’s so-called superior. According to a study published by CBS News, rude people are three times more likely to be in a position of authority over the people they are rude to.
Hey boss, are you treating your workers with respect? Are you sure about that?
Almost 10 million American employees say they personally experience “chronic anger” at work. That should scare folks, because you really never know what someone’s going to do when they’re angry.
I honestly believe that this rudeness trend is a sign of a society in decline, and it may be just as important as the major issues that confront our nation. Many of our problems come from poor relations with others — and among ourselves — and good relations start with good manners.
Mom always told me that saying the words “please” and “thank you” can open just as many doors to success as brains and good looks can. Since my brains and looks — or lack thereof — aren't likely to take me too much further, maybe it’s time to finally start listening to Mom.
I started this week, by saying “I’m sorry,” to that woman — the one I was so rude to on the phone — face to face. To her credit, she smiled and graciously accepted my apology. She didn't have to, but she did. One of her co-workers later told me that my impolite behavior on the phone wasn't all that unusual. She said they deal with people all the time who are far more rude than I was.
I have no doubt she’s right. And that’s the problem.