Courtesy is Dead


I emailed 27 folks last week to communicate information needed for an upcoming meeting. Only two of them acknowledged my mail. I sent an urgent text message to an associate last Monday – twice, to make sure it was transmitted. Two days later, I have yet to receive a reply. Were the messages received or not? If I contact them to inquire, will I get an answer? I may not, which will only make me wonder whether my follow up message was received. So I follow up again…? Rather than be a virtual hamster on a communication treadmill, I’ve decided to leave it in the ether. What’s the point? Courtesy is dead.

A friend who is the secretary of an organization I belong to shares my frustration. She sends notices of meeting. No reply. She sends updates and requests for input. No reply. I have served as secretary of an organization as well and I have had the same vexing experience. During my tenure, I spent quite a bit of time and effort just to find out whether our members indeed received and understood my messages. It was a thankless job. Our members are highly educated and well-placed individuals, so saying mal educado doesn’t hold here. People these days simply do not feel they need to respond to communications sent to them. That this happens at a juncture in history when communicating is at its quickest and most efficient is a mystery.

It was better back in the day when to touch base with someone, I had to take pen and paper and write, observing the proper form complete with address, salutation, main missive, and a cordial goodbye. The best part of letter writing was the anticipation of a reply, which always came. Alternatively, I could pick up the telephone and dial. When the call was taken, I would cheerfully say, “Hello, good afternoon (or morning or evening), may I please speak with…” We had to do this because unlike now, our telephones then never identified the name, number, and profile pic of whoever was on the other line and we could very well be talking to our friend’s parent or some other elder. It was best to be courteous. (I’m talking about the ’80s, mind you. Nineteen, not 1880s.)

We cared about politeness then. We disdained rudeness. Perhaps it was because we had to deal with each other face to face and not go through the impersonality of some user name or avatar. When we chatted, we actually heard the voice we were speaking to and discerned by its reaction when we had offended or pleased. Polite society normally chose not to offend. That’s why it was polite. Yet now, in the guise of speed and expediency and professionalism and busyness, courtesy is jettisoned with nary a qualm.

This extends to more than communication but to commuting as well. I’m old enough to have experienced gentlemen give up their seat to me on the bus and to have done the same (and still do!) for children, pregnant ladies, PWDs, and elderly folks of every gender. My friends and I did not view it a challenge to our feminism to have doors opened for us, especially when our hands were full. We did not feel less empowered as women but instead felt valued as individuals worthy of the gesture. We did the same for others – child, woman, or man. It was not about social politics nor being too high on the corporate ladder to give a hoot, it was about respect and kindness and compassion.

Common courtesy involves all these. I was taught as a child to be considerate, never to speak with my mouth full, and to reply when spoken to. I was told it was the height of rudeness to ignore someone who was bothering to take an interest in me. To be apathetic or non-responsive was to arrogantly assert that I was better than the other. That he or she was not worth an answer. That this person was negligible enough for me to tune out. I was made to understand that whether or not this person was close to me, his or her effort was worth acknowledging. And so to this day, I respond to every text message, call, and email I receive as soon as I get it or thereabouts. If I don’t, that means I’m swamped or I’m sick or both. (At any rate, even so, I usually belatedly react…unless I never got the message to begin with.)

I can’t understand why many folks these days don’t bother to be courteous. I’m no sociologist so I can’t make conclusions. All I know is that this communication age has spawned an unintended consequence: the increasing failure of interpersonal communications. What a pity. Courtesy is good and dead. May I hope it will one day rise again?

Waiting for a reply.

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Comments (4)

    • Reply

      Thanks, mk. How about this – what if those of us who feel the same way put up a defense for manners? Maybe we can make a difference. 🙂

  1. Reply

    The ending remarks is too catchy, I just had to reply. 😉 I agree with you completely. I do not often experience this at work but I always do with personal communications. Usually, I have to wait for days (sometimes I just have to know when to give up) when I try to set a meeting or a get-together with friends. But then, I am also guilty for treating others like how you described in this article. I think, in some cases, with all the stimuli and distractions that we get from the internet and sms, we have to learn to ignore the less important. Again, this only applies in certain situations. Reading your articles moved me to re-think how I handle my inbox from today. Thank you.

    • Reply

      Thank you for your openness & humility. 🙂 I think we’re all guilty at times, & I suppose there are occasions when silence is warranted. What I’m talking about here is those who are non-responsive as a rule. I’d like to think we can all arrange to treat each other a bit better. 🙂

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