COLUMN: Is Common Courtesy Dying?

Updated 4 years ago by Rene A. Henry
SEATTLE, Wash. – For 10 years journalists have been writing and talking about more people becoming rude every day. We now have a generation that does not understand or practice the basics of old fashioned common courtesy. They obviously never learned from their parents and their children will not learn from them, making things even worse in the future.

“There is no doubt American society has changed dramatically in a generation with respect to manners and social discourse,” says Dr. Douglas Fields, neurobiologist and author of Why We Snap. People today are angry and filled with rage. I can’t recall air rage before Congress deregulated the airlines when they had to compete solely on customer service. And road rage is getting dangerously out of control.

            Watch a public entry or elevator and see how many men fail to hold the door for a lady, or for that matter, for anyone regardless of gender. One writer noted “When holding a door I’ve had more than my share of being passed right by without even the slightest acknowledgment.” At a luncheon or dinner party or meeting see how many men stand when a lady is being seated.

            Too many people do not know it is rude to not answer letters and emails or return telephone calls. Technology has made it so much easier to communicate yet so few people do. Until the era of junk mail, spam and robocalls, I had a policy that all communiques would be answered and within a set period of time. I responded to every unsolicited résumé and calls from vendors seeking my business. I did not use a form letter and made an effort to personalize each response. This policy paid a major dividend when several years later it resulted in a major client.

            A failure to respond can be costly. One university lost a one million dollar gift when a professor refused to thank or return the call of a donor. It cost a major home builder much more to resolve hundreds of sales rescissions because a secretary failed to have her boss return repeated calls from a home buyer. I believe one major obstacle today is the gate guardian who believes she is protecting her boss and diverts letters to a so-called customer service office. Many of these individuals have the title of executive assistant but are not even as skilled or qualified as clerk typists a decade or so ago.

            In his book Public Relations Impacts the World, Aaron Cushman devotes one chapter to how rudeness and disrespect are becoming prevalent, cheating and lying have become a new phenomenon, and he questions if anyone tells the truth anymore. “The list of famous people and corporations who forget what truth means goes on and on,” he writes.

Cushman also notes that university professors report that students show rudeness and disrespect as a matter of course and they must be reminded to refrain from surfing the web, answering cell phones, texting, or randomly leaving and entering the classroom during a lecture. “Our modern American culture seems to place more emphasis on the acquisition of money than on ethics, courtesy, and integrity,” he says.

I don’t believe some people are intentionally rude but simply just do not know any better. Ellen Byron in The Wall Street Journal wrote that a failure to respond to invitations is becoming an increasing problem because too many unexpected guests appear at functions. I doubt if few people even know that RSVP stands for répondez s’il vous plaît or even what it means. Another lost practice is the personal handwritten note. I honestly believe some people today would use an email or tweet to express sympathy for someone’s loss.

How many times have you had a call from someone saying “I’m in the office of the president?” You are led to believe this individual is in an office next to the boss but chances are this individual is working hundreds or thousands of miles away in another city. This blatant lie is becoming more common today and the people who began the practice are doing a disservice to their employer and the customer. Why require an employee to lie instead of just telling the truth about how s/he wants to serve a customer?

The rude and impersonal use of one-way emails discourages any kind of response or feedback. Why would anyone send you an email and not allow you to easily respond? Yet many do, including some members of Congress, by making you play “20 questions” and spend time to send any kind of a response.

When it comes to truth in advertising I believe the cruise line industry is one of the biggest violators. It is notorious for its pricing promoted as a 2-for-1 offer and 60 percent off the catalog price. But has that trip ever once sold for the catalog price? In a super market you get two apples for the price of one but if you only want to buy one you can at that price. Not so in the cruise line industry. I just returned from a cruise and as a single traveler was charged a penalty markup price of 200 percent, or because I was one I paid for two. The Internet is filled with complaints about fictitious pricing but don’t expect the Federal Trade Commission to take any action because the industry is too lawyered-up and spends millions to lobby their special interests in Congress.

But should Corporate American be exempt from telling lies? In 2007 in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington made it legal for politicians to lie ruling that the First Amendment protects political campaign lies. At the same time, it declared unconstitutional a law passed by the state legislature that barred candidates from deliberately making false and even malicious statements about their opponents.

Some 40 years ago “Liar’s Club” was a popular television show. It would be filled with winners today. And where is more appropriate than Washington, D.C. for the prestigious Alibi Club to be located. Established in 1884, the National Register of Historic Places describes the club’s function as “providing its members with an alibi when their whereabouts was questioned by wives and family.” Members have included some of the most prominent people in government. Word is that today if you call and ask if a member if there you will be told “yes” even if the member is not. You may leave a message but will not be connected.

All of this lack of common courtesy is contributing to diminished customer service. A new generation does not expect it or want it. I attribute rudeness in our society to the proliferation of social media and the multitude of electronic devices. There is little personal communication between people. In Seattle I do as much defensive walking as defensive driving to avoid being knocked over by a pedestrian whose ears are filled with buds and being so intent using a pad, pod or berry that s/he is oblivious to the world.

I wonder if many people actually realize they are being rude when they let a cellphone ring in the theatre or in restaurant and bar areas marked “no cellphone.” Or do not pick up after or keep a dog on a leash. Talk loudly during a a movie or play or concert. Fail to yield or signal when turning while driving. Text and talk while driving which also is dangerous. Barge in a queued line. Let children run loose, cry, scream or talk during any performance. At a health club not picking up their towels, newspapers, coffee cups or wiping anything spilled. On a bus or train not giving a seat to a woman, senior or someone disabled. This list could go on, and on, and on.

Dress has changed throughout the years. I remember when you wouldn’t think of boarding an airplane unless properly attired in a suit and tie. Today some businesses have adopted a business casual code. Many restaurants eased restrictions on ties and later jackets. Some have gone so far as to allow diners in tank tops, flip flops and wearing baseball caps turned backwards. I wonder why these guys just don’t just buy a yarmulke.

When I worked in Washington, D.C. the proper dress was always suit and tie even in 100 degree weather with excessive humidity. In my last job my boss had the same suit and tie policy and our business was in the Caribbean and Central America. I remember when an invitation said “informal” it meant black tie and tuxedo and “formal” meant white tie and tails.

A lack of common courtesy as well as poor or non-existent customer service has led to a number of avoidable and costly crises. Corporate America is in a position to take a leadership role as well teachers beginning in pre-school through K-12 and college. It is time to properly educate the next generation or we will have a raging society.

The media has a responsibility to educate those who do not know any better. Editors of club magazines, alumni magazines and college student newspapers should regularly use short paragraphs of reminders of what is courteous and what is rude. That would be a start.

Rene A. Henry is a writer and author of nine books including “Customer Service: the cornerstone of success” and “Communicating In A Crisis.” Many of his commentaries and information on his books are posted on his website at

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