A cry for civility

March 22, 2001
While gathering information for the concept car article at the Detroit North American International Auto Show this January, something became glaringly apparent to me — that is, the loss of manners.

Journalists are commonly tagged as being rather self-important and, if your company ever hosts a press conference, you can expect rude behavior from some members of the media. Surrounded by fellow automotive journalists for three days, I noticed the absence of common civilities such as excuse me, please, and thank you. What's worse, I was jostled, pushed, and even took an elbow to the throat while trying to gather material at the end of one automaker's press conference. Of course, it didn't help that the press material was suavely outfitted in a leather binder, clearly an item that warranted pushing, shoving, and ultimately, an elbow.

At another press conference, one journalist, in his zeal to be the first to the press desk, fell into a display containing an automaker's engine, causing a rather large piece of plastic to break off the base. On a rather humorous note, the journalist looked around accusingly, to see if some invisible person had pushed him or perhaps the display had somehow leapt into his path. One of the booth staff members rushed over to see if he was okay. He angrily brushed her off, and went away muttering. No words of thanks were ever uttered from him and, in fact, I believe the staff member actually apologized to him.

Lest I be thought of as discriminating against my colleagues, I offer up another example. This time I'm thinking of businesses that, at one time, actually knew the definition of customer service. Specifically, I recall a recent visit to the grocery store. Normally, upon greeting another human being, the proper address is "Hello." I tried this on a cashier, and got silence in return. Still not giving up, after the changing of money, receipts, etc., I found myself actually saying "Thank you" to her. To which I actually received a response — "You're welcome." Of course, as I was leaving the store I questioned myself as to why the heck I was thanking the cashier. But at least it spurred a polite response in return. And stores that actually have friendly workers who regularly exchange such civilities have become an anomaly, almost a freak show.

On another note, my friend Joe has a thing about phone etiquette. He has grown silent on more than one occasion when, in a hurry to ask him some pressing question, I fail to answer his inquiry of how I am and to return the same pleasantry his way. Now I realize when there is silence on the other end that perhaps I missed an important step in common courtesy. I'm happy to report my track record has improved considerably since this indiscretion has been pointed out.

I have to believe that at some point in society, the exchange of pleasantries was the norm instead of the exception. Now, we have grown wary of such exchanges. If a complete stranger does greet us, we may respond, but part of us remains suspicious, questioning their true motives. At stores, we accept being treated with indifference or, in some extreme cases, downright hostility.

I don't pretend to have any answers as to why this is. I do know that young children are capable of being taught manners. For example, my three-year-old niece Emma has a Sesame Street audiocassette (which I have listened to more times than I care to admit) with a song teaching children the importance of two little words — please and thank you. Perhaps one answer is training courses for adults where this song, and others like it, are used to teach the same. And for the good of the general public, maybe music that, if you'll pardon the phrase, sings the praises of such courtesies could be piped in throughout stores, making the phrase "a pleasant shopping experience" a reality instead of a lofty ideal.

The loss of common courtesies and manners damages us as a society. It erodes communities when people no longer acknowledge one another while passing, promoting isolation. The electronic age we are in does nothing to help. I don't believe it's well advised to greet and thank the ATM the next time you visit. But, if people continue this downward spiral of not interacting with one another, what does this spell for future generations?

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