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Whatever Happened to Common Courtesy?



A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot. ~ Robert A. Heinlein.


Recently in a class I teach at Old Dominion University called “Sex, Culture & Media,” my students and I discussed an episode of Sex and the City—the one where Carrie’s boyfriend of the moment breaks up with her via Post-it Note.


Before I continue, let me say this: I never really liked Sex and the City. Yeah, it had witty dialogue and clever puns and all. But it also traded in gender stereotypes. Indeed, for a show that purported to celebrate independent career-minded women, the characters spent an awful lot of time cooing over shoes and engagement rings or comforting themselves with chocolate—you know, the stuff “women do.” All the while, men were depicted as insensitive lugs.


That said, I think the Post-it episode may be one of the most prophetic half hours in the history of television.


It’s interesting that Sex and the City began the year Seinfeld ended. Whereas Seinfeld and friends personified the culture of detached irony, narcissism and degradation of both sincerity and empathy that emerged in the ‘90s, the “girls” of Sex and the City were struggling with the fallout from that cultural development and the confusion that resulted.


Over the last decade, the effects of this fallout have grown more pronounced, thanks in part to social media. Today there would be no need to use a Post-it Note. Wanna break up with someone? Just shoot ‘em a text. Or announce it on Facebook or Twitter and let the person you’ve just kicked to the curb find out that way.


Or do nothing at all.


That may be the biggest irony of all in the Post-it episode. Carrie was both dumbfounded and hurt that anyone would break off a relationship so coldly—and understandably so. Whatever happened to common courtesy, she wants to know. Whatever happened to the days when it was considered bad form the break up with someone on the phone instead of in person?


Those days have gone the way of the transistor radio, that’s what happened. Now, in fact, in spite of all the instant communications devices at our disposal, it’s not uncommon to just end a relationship by…well…just ending it. Not feeling it anymore? Easy. Stop returning messages. In time, maybe we’ll long for the days when people had the courtesy to leave a handwritten Post-It.


This isn’t just about breakups, though. It’s about the evaporation of common courtesies in all spheres of life. An article published last year in The New York Times illustrated this. It was called “The End of Courtship.” It opens with an anecdote about a 30-year-old woman who’d been asked out on a “date” by a guy she’d recently met on OK Cupid.


“At 10 p.m., I hadn’t heard from him,” the woman told the reporter. “Finally, at 10:30, he sent a text message. ‘Hey, I’m at Pub & Kitchen, want to meet up for a drink or whatever?’ he wrote, before adding, ‘I’m here with a bunch of friends from college.’” (The “or whatever” is particularly telling. I guess it adds an element of, I don’t really care either way.)


Even worse, remarked another woman in the article, is when guys send texts that just say, “Hey” or “Sup?”


But let’s be clear about something: While both Sex and the City and last year’s Times article suggest that it’s just men who behave this way, this is decidedly not the case. Recently one of my students told me that a friend of hers thinks “it would be weird” to go out on a traditional date with a guy where just the two of them would have to talk over dinner or drinks.


This attitude, in turn, is not limited to dating—not by a long shot. I’ve met many people in recent years who say they “don’t like to make plans.” And if they do, well, don’t count on those plans being very firm.


In my experience, punctuality has become almost as quaint as the handwritten, stamped and mailed thank-you note on fine stationary. I’m not talking about people being 10 or 15 minutes late. Several years ago, a friend told me that she’d made plans to meet one of her best friends for dinner. She sat in the restaurant alone—for an hour—waiting. After sending several texts saying, “You coming?” she was ready to give up. Then, finally, her friend responded via text. “Sorry,” it said. “I got caught up in a TV show. Be there soon.”


I’ve also encountered my share of people—men and women—who think nothing of canceling at the last minute: sometimes for no other reason than they “just don’t feel like getting off the couch.”


That is, if they have the courtesy to even initiate cancellation. At times I’ve gotten that kind response only after texting myself to see if we’re still on. It never seems to occur to these people that the person they’re blowing off might—just might—have turned down other invitations, or might have made other plans with a little more advance notice.


Perhaps that’s why for a lot of people making plans at all seems to be regarded as un-cool. They prefer to just go with the flow.

When I complained about this to a 27-year-old friend recently, she said, “Haha. Tom, you’re dating yourself.”


I guess this is partly a generational thing. But not entirely. I’ve known my share of middle-aged people who won’t talk on the phone (i.e., they only text), never seem to have heard of punctuality and think nothing of blowing off plans at the last minute or just not showing up at all.


Conversely, I have 20-something friends who are as courteous, reliable and punctual as anyone could be. But I often feel that those of us who value these social customs are becoming as rare as people who buy a paper copy of the morning newspaper.


I think social media, as I’ve indicated, are largely to blame. It’s not just that people don’t call each other anymore. They don’t communicate well in writing either. “Dating culture,” commented one woman interviewed for the Times article, “has evolved to a cycle of text messages, each one requiring the code-breaking skills of a cold war spy to interpret.” I’ve added emphasis here because it’s not just the choice of communication mode. It’s the lack of clarity. Texting technology is not inherently bad, after all. It’s entirely possible to write fully coherent sentences and paragraphs on your phone. But as often as not, I receive texts that have all the clarity of a Zen koan, not to mention a disregard for punctuation and capitalization that would make e.e. cummings cringe.


A lot of this has to do with the declining literacy of our culture—a trend Neil Postman lamented back in 1985 in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. But he was attacking television. At least when people watched television, they sometimes encountered extended and coherent dialogue. With the rise of videogames and social media, literacy—the ability to read and write—declined even further. And with it, all formality has gone out the window. I regularly get emails or texts from students saying, simply, “Hey. Whens the paper due.” [sic]. Each time I’m sorely tempted to say, “Who the fuck are you and what class are you in?” But I refrain.


All that said, there’s something deeper going on here. It’s not just about social media. It’s that culture of detachment and narcissism I mentioned earlier. A culture in which fewer and fewer people seem to have a capacity for empathy. I pegged this to the 1990s, but I suppose the seeds of this cultural trend may have been planted back in the 1970s when Christopher Lasch published his groundbreaking book The Culture of Narcissism.

The point is, we are now experiencing its full effects.


My daughter—who still adheres to old fashioned social customs—said she thinks it’s particularly acute in her generation because so many people in her age cohort were raised by helicopter parents. The hovering moms and dads who arranged and structured every moment of their kids’ lives may well have contributed to this generation’s disdain for making and keeping plans of any kind.


Moreover, the “you can be anything you want” message is probably to blame for today’s rising tide of cynicism. Having been told this repeatedly, members of this generation emerged into a culture where there were few jobs to be had and where the most solid-looking skyscrapers might blow up at any minute.


Finally, there’s the impact of the rising divorce rate, which has probably left a lot of people thinking that no one can be relied upon—so why make and keep commitments of any kind?


I know. You’re probably thinking I sound like a grumpy old man who’s about to tell you how I used to walk to school barefoot in the snow, uphill—both ways.


So be it. Admittedly, the “good old days” weren’t so good for blacks, women, and gays. But with the disappearance of these common courtesies, I think we’ve lost something. Call me old-fashioned if you want, but I wouldn’t mind at all if we returned to the days of telephone calls, thank-you notes, full sentences, and dates that are politely arranged, unfold with pleasant conversation and end with a single goodnight kiss.



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