In the U.S.A. Today, ‘Common Courtesy’

is a Contradictory Phrase.

Boorish Behavior is the Norm, And Polite Souls Mourn; Blaming ‘Me Generation’


How to Cope With an Insult.


          Dear reader: If you will please take a moment to consider the following, it will be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance for your kind attention.

Deborah Whitman, a management consultant in San Francisco, was recently using a public telephone to hunt for an apartment. Noticing that a man was standing behind her waiting to use the phone, she explained, politely, that since she planned to make several calls, she would let the man interrupt her. The man took over the phone— and proceeded to make one call after another. After several calls, Ms. Whitman asked him if he would be much longer. His response: “1 didn’t think I had to ask your permission to use a public phone.”

On a recent business trip to Columbus, Ohio, Susan Pyles, a 32-year-old account supervisor for a Dallas advertising agency, was traveling with three male colleagues. The men were carrying only briefcases; but Ms. Pyles, plan -ning to be out of town for an extended stay, was juggling a briefcase, a purse, a carry-on travel bag and a suitcase.

Through the airport, into the cab and then into the client’s office, Ms. Pyles struggled with her luggage while the men forged ahead. “I thought it was tremendously rude,” she says, adding that her indignation had nothing to do with men helping women. If they were in the same situation,” she says, ‘I would have offered to help them.”

Now comes a frequent moviegoer, Frank Beayerton becomes increasingly irritated by what he calls the “TV-living-room manners people bring into the theaters.” He explains: “Some people will carry on a full two-hour conversation. I once heard a couple plan their entire wedding and honeymoon while the movie was on.”

Mr. Beaver, a professor of communications at the University of Michigan, says trying to reason with the talkers is useless. When I stand up and hush them, the people give me this incredible look,” he says. More to the point: “I have been fearful they might just get up and hit me.”

No doubt about it: Small, everyday courtesies among Americans these days seem to have gone the way of finger bowls and hand fans—rarer in everyday usage than an “After you, ma’am” on the New York City subway system.

Slammed Doors

It is true that some regions—notably the South—cling more than others to the vestiges of gracious behavior. It is further conceded that courteous ways seem to have lingered longer in small towus than in big cities. But throughout the U.S. these days. Most people in most places—city dwellers and country club-bers, foreigners and American citizens alike—seem to feel that the old phrase “common courtesy” has become a contradiction in terms.

Courtesy has been “declining every single year,” says Pat Udbinac, who has been working as a legal secretary in Pittsburgh for the past 44 years. “I’d say in the past year, maybe once someone has offered me their seat on the bus. . . and if somebody holds a door open for you, you’re so shocked you just stand there like a dummy—I’m so used to having them slammed in my face.”

What’s going on here? Some say absolutely nothing. John Lachs, a Vanderbilt University philosophy professor, doesn’t see much of a decline in courtesy because he doesn’t believe there was much to begin with. What used to be considered courteous behavior, he says, “wasn’t courtesy in the true sense. It was a . . . kind of posturing to a certain end.” Real courtesy, says Mr. Lachs, is any form of “caring for another person. By contrast, he recalls his first visit to the South in the 1950s and how he was told to observe the courtesy of black waiters in a Williamsburg, Va., restaurant. “This wasn’t courtesy,” says Mr. Lachs. “This was fear and deference.”

‘A Bad Rap’

 Elsewhere, New York City’s Mayor Edward Koch says, “I believe there’s more courtesy, not less” and goes on to say that his city gets a “a bad rap” on rudeness. New Yorkers, the mayor says, go out of their way to give tourist directions, and “I’ve even seen some people walk part of the way.”

Maybe so. But the many—New Yorkers included—who believe that courtesy is declining, dying or dead have one example after another to prove their point:

          Complains Gary McAvay, executive vice president of Columbia Artists Theatricals Corp., a New York theatrical-management company: “There’s no such thing as umbrella courtesy. Everybody’s umbrella is aimed at my eye level.”

          Complains Michael D. Clark, account manager with the Cincinnati advertising firm of Fahlgren & Swink: “The decline of Western civilization is directly related to the way I am treated in stores and restaurants.”

          Complains Anne C. Garrett, a photogra-pher’s representative in Denver: “ Plane travel, which used to be something special, is now more like a bus depot—it’s lost a gracious edge. Now when you’re treated well, you notice it.”

          Complains a Delta Air Lines flight attendant: “Courtesy is almost zero. People buy a ticket and think you owe them everything. Says Abigail Van Buren, who writes the “Dear Abby” syndicated column: “ This issue is a biggie.” The columnist goes on: “If a person is kind, or generous, it’s an event.” Her mail, she says, touches on sore spots ranging from poor manners in supermarket lines to talking during movies.

As a longtime student of human nature, Abby has her theories on what is making the rudeness rampant. It begins at home, she says. Young people are the worst offenders when it comes to discourteous behavior, she says, and that is because “the parents say they’re too busy or it’s too much work” to teach polite behavior.

Ronald Pies, a psychiatrist at New England Medical Center in Boston, agrees. The ability of kids to absorb parental norms has been compromised as mom and dad are out of the house more, either because of changing work habits or a marriage that isn’t working,” he says. “There has to be some foundation during early childhood that says, ‘Look, kids, you can’t do anything you want in this house or this world. I’m going to set some limits.’

‘Rocky’ vs. ‘Robin Hood’

Edward A. Wynne, a professor of education at the University of Illinois in Chicago, blames, among other factors, movies and television for setting poor examples for young people. “Look at ‘Rocky,’ “ he says. “The guy can hardly grunt ‘Please.’ In older movies, like ‘Robin Hood,’ Errol Flynn would go out to battle but still be gentlemanly and courteous . Nobody called him a wimp.”

If that helps explain the social gracelessness of youths, what about their el-ders? Howard Griels, a Boston psychiatrist, blames materialism. “People are more preoccupied with income and material goods and less preoccupied with making intimate friends and developing personal relationships,” he says.

Radio psychologist Toni Grant points a finger at the women’s movement. “Women have traditionally created a climate for courtesy and demanded it,” she says . “If you have a generation of hard-driving and goal-directed women, you don’t have anyone holding the torch for social graces. The common amenities take time. They tend to slow a person down.”

Extending the Grant theory, one Washington reporter—a male—says the women’s movement has made him hesitant to give up subway seats to women because they might feel he is condescending to them. Consequently, he says, when he does give up a seat, “I find myself feigning that I’m getting off at the next stop. Never look the woman in the eye. . . One day recently I did this when two middle-aged women came on a crowded tram. I got up, and when I turned, around, a man in his late 40s had taken the seat.”.

The University of Michigan’s Prof. Beaver is more inclined to blame generation than gender. “Our society has become increasingly competitive,” he says. “There is a high degree of stress level from the nieed to compete and succeed in this ‘me generation.’ As a result, people have become more self- centered over time. It’s so against them.’ That has contributed to a real decline in courtesy.”

Anonymous Rudeness

The professor adds: “I think an awful lot of people are wonderfully courteous in social settings. Lack of courtesy seems to more often occur in anonymous settings on sidewalks, on buses, in theaters.” And by many accounts, it does occurs more often in certain parts of the country than in others. Andrew Rosenblatt, a Miami lawyer, says the East Coast is ruder than other parts of the country. “When I traveled to Colorado,” he says, “I was astonished at the courtesy extended to people. . . . When you’re driving on the interstate in Colorado and New Mexico, they’re not screaming and pointing the infamous finger. In Miami, it’s done as a matter of course. I suspect the only thing that inhibits it in Miami is you can get shot if you point a finger at the wrong person.”

 Still, it is the South that is most often singled out as a last bastion of polite behavior. At Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport, Charles Callan, a nuclear-power plant technician who moved to Tennessee from Chicago in 1979, makes some comparisons “ At O’Hare International Airport in Chicago , they’d just as soon put you down. Here, if they bump into you it’s at least ‘Excuse .me.,

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, director of women s studies at Emory University in Atlanta and a Southern-culture historian, feels tbat Southern courtesy has been in a state of decline since the Civil War. “When ‘ordinary’ folks can jostle ‘good’ folks, courtesy is under great strain,” she explains. Even so, she adds, what remains is a patina of courtesy that easily surpasses Northern manners. “What you’re left with is a lot more ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir,’ a lot more holding of doors and holding of coats, a more heightened articulation of male and female,” says Ms. Fox-Genovese. “I still think there’s a lot more courtesy in the South than the North.”

Churlish Behavior

Which is to be expected, says David Riesman, professor emeritus of sociology at Harvard University. “The South is relatively more homogeneous—the South remains a region and distinctly so—but that doesn’t hold for the metropolises. he says, by way of explaining Southern civility. The worst areas in terms of rude behavior, he says, are the big cities of the Northeast. “I think the ethnic combats of the Northeast segment of the country. . . have left something in their wake in terms of churlish behavior, which one would find also to some degree in Chicago,” he says, adding: People in rural areas know each other, and that makes a difference.”

But few anywhere in the U.S., some say are as courteous as many foreigners. David Duncan, an arms dealer in Miami, says, “The ones that have the social graces are the Latin Americans and the Europeans. They are very, very courteous.” He adds: “They may be cutting your throat, but they are very courteous about it.’’

As for foreigners themselves, many say they are treated rudely in the U.S. Ted Lazarus, general merchandise manager for Park Lane Inc., a Montreal -based neck-wear manufacturer, believes there has been a general decline in courtesy in the U.S. He is particularly offended by instant familiarity “where no familiarity has been asked for.” explaining, “I find people calling you by your first name when they don’t know you impolite.” He adds: “In Canada and in Europe, there is a formality to doing business. You put on a suit and tie. ... [In the U.S.] it’s very common for me to sit across the table from some-body who is chewing gum loudly.”

Impolite Signs

Mariko Shindo, a Japanese woman who has been living in the U.S. for a year, calls Americans “very rough” when compared with her countrymen. She says she was surprised when people on the streets of San Francisco and New York (Mayor Koch. take note) brushed her aside with contempt when she asked for directions. “ In Japan, they lead you by the hand to wheever you’re going,” she says.

Impoliteness in the U.S. extends even to inanimate objects, says Jamin Mehta, a British national who is a consultant for McKinsey & Co. in Pittsburgh. “The over head public signs are a clear sign of discourtesy here,” he says. “Here the sign would say ‘No Smoking’; in Europe, the sign would say ‘No Smoking Please.’

Americans, Mr. Mehta says, “can be rude without meaning it.” As an example, he says, he had just come from his eye doctor’s office where “an assistant said, ‘Come in here,’ as she led me into a room. In England they would say, ‘Please follow me.’ “Reacting to the assistant’s manner, Mr. Mehta says he himself became “extremely cold,’ after which the assistant “became quite polite.” He concludes that “lack of courtesy sometimes draws a very negative reaction from me.”

How to contend with discourtesies is a hot topic among those subjected to rude behavior but one that engenders little consensus. If Mr. Mehta’s tit-for- tat maneuver works for him, it nevertheless isn’t a response that is universally admired. Mr. McAvay—he who is continually getting hit in the eye by our umbrellas on the sidewalks of New York—doesn’t jab back. Instead, he explains, what humbles the rude’ person into more courteous behavior is to remark on the rudeness, not to mirror it. “If you point it out,” he says, “they really feel badly.”

Judith Martin, better known as the syndicated columnist Miss Manners, also doesn’t believe in retaliating in kind. When confronted with rudeness, she says, “what you don’t do is respond with equally rude behavior.” How, then, do you behave? One way, Miss Manners says, is “freezing politeness. ... When someone says, ‘God, you look awful’—a typical remark these days ----- and you respond, ‘Well, you don’t look so hot yourself,’ you’re going down to their level. But if you look them in the eye and reply, ‘How kind of you to say so,’ it might give them pause.”

As for the current state of American courtesy, says Miss Manners, “We’re a half step above rock bottom”; the good news: “Only recently, we were at rock bottom.” She adds: “I see some hope because the problem has been identified.”

Until the problem is solved, Alex Sheshunoff, an Austin, Texas, bank consult-ant, has this advice for coping in a world of boorishness: “Keep moving for-ward. Smile and look for the ones who are going to be courteous. Recognize that there’s a certain esprit de corps among nice people in the world.

“In the long run, we may not win, but we’ll be happier along the way.”

Again, dear reader, thank you for your time. ...

Politeness on Capitol Hill Isn’t an Age-Old Tradition


          WASHINGTON—In the early days of the republic, Rep. Matthew Lyon of Vermont was known as the Spitting Lyon.” He earned the nickname after spitting in the face of Rep. Roger Griswold of Connecticut.

Some years later, during the red-hot passions that led to the Civil War

P.S. “Bully” Brooks of South Carolina took issue with a speech by Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who characterized advocates of slavery as “hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization.” On May 22, 1856, Rep. Brooks assaulted Sen. Sumner on the Senate floor, caning him until the Bay State lawmaker fell to the floor, bloody and uncon-scious. Mr. Sumner’s injuries forced him to leave his seat for nearly four years. Mr. Brooks resigned in July 1856 but was reelected the following month to fill the vacancy caused by his resignation.

Today’s congressional rows are models of courtesy by comparison. Last month, tempers flared on the Senate floor over an obscure regulatory bill that President Reagan opposed. Standing up for the administration’s point of view, Vice President George Bush engaged in a debate with Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd over “fair play.” However, debate or not, the senator addressed the vice president as “the distinguished presiding officer,” and the vice-president acknowledged “the courtesy of the distinguished majorityleader.”

Lawmakers long have used nice talk to camouflage not-so-nice thoughts, and it is almost a rule of thumb that when- ever a legislator refers to another as a “distinguished colleague,” he is rooting hard for his defeat in the next election.

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