Why is politeness becoming the exception, rather than the rule?

A couple of recent incidents have reinforced the importance of politeness in every day life and the tremendous impact it can have on customer relations and organizational image.

For example, I was recently flying home on a Continental jet from Burlington, Vt., and had purchased a bottle of water at the gate. Not thinking about it, I threw the bottle in my bag and boarded. After take-off, I opened the bottle and took a swig. The flight attendant went absolutely ballistic. She shouted at me to "surrender the bottle" immediately. I handed it over to her and said I had bought it right at the gate. She gave me a real surly sneer and said, "I don’t care where you bought it. It’s not allowed on board."

Juxtapose that experience with one from yesterday when my wife and I went in search for a new puppy to replace the late, lamented Pepper. Deciding to visit the local ASPCA, we were greeted by a volunteer named Bob, who could not have been more friendly, more engaging or more educated about the right and wrong ways to adopt a pet. Bob had us fill out a "matchability" sheet that probed for our feelings and needs in 18 distinct areas. He said they’d run our results through their computer and then come back to us with a list of possible canine candidates. He assured us it was a much smarter and saner way to go.

I cannot tell you how different my feelings are towards Continental Airlines and the ASPCA. And, it’s all because of one customer service representative encounter.

According to an AP-Ipsos poll released last October, 70 percent of Americans think their fellow Americans are ruder and less polite then they were 30 years ago. I have no doubt this is true and see it demonstrated in multiple ways every day (from the sarcastic train conductor and obnoxiously loud fellow passenger to clients who fire you by e-mail and prospects who string you along meeting after meeting).

What’s the solution? Well, a start would be a fascinating update of the original "Miss Manners" book. Called a "Guide for the turn-of-the-millennium," the new Miss Manners book provides "explicit, practical and entertaining advice on social, business and personal etiquette." Having gone through it, I can recommend it and, in fact, may send a copy to the CEO of Continental Airlines, suggesting he share it with a certain Burlington-Newark flight attendant.

Thanks to Laura Mills for her thoughts on this topic.

5 thoughts on “Why is politeness becoming the exception, rather than the rule?

  1. As a college student raised in a small town and moving to progressively bigger places I can’t agree more with most of what you have said.

  2. Speaking of geography, a recent international poll reveals U.S. citizens to be much more polite than their “rude” British counterparts. Considering decades of “proper” behavior and the influence of the royal family, it’s surprising that a large consensus finds the “ugly American” outpacing the British in the manners department, to say the least.
    I agree with the last post that geography comes into play . . . but only to an extent. Any newcomer’s perceptions will obviously be influenced if they aren’t akin to the social mores of a new geography, but that’s where it ends. Manners, polite behavior, hospitality and general compassion are innate. Whether you’re from the South or from London, it shouldn’t matter. Bottom line: we may all have different dialects, but the language is universal.

  3. While I agree with your assessment and concede that some behavior is unacceptable, you cannot make this argument without considering context and geography.
    I was born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised under the precedent of traditional southern hospitality. Imagine my culture shock in living in places like London, Italy and, my current home, New York City. But in each adventure, it became very apparent that the standards of social niceties are not always black and white.
    In Italy, young women are notoriously frigid, a trait that often passes into customer service interactions and tourists often find them rude and aloof. However, Italy seems to condition women from an early age to put on a faccia di muro (stone face), more often than not to avoid uncomfortable attention from a male-dominated culture equally conditioned to “appreciate” beauty. There is a historical reason as well, but I’ll omit it for the sake of brevity.
    Even in the U.S., the rules change with the geography. As a Southerner in Manhattan, I had my own perceptions. However, I quickly realized that New Yorkers aren’t rude; they’re in a hurry. The standards of politeness are just different, but courtesy remains.
    Politeness should be the rule. Everyone just needs to know the rules to begin with.

  4. 1.) Unlike humans, animals do not kill “their own” unless provoked or threatened. Maybe we have an instinctive compassion for them because in that most important way they are more advanced than we are. Traditionally, those who work with, or devote their spare time to animals, are unusually compassionate and perhaps this is one reason.
    2.) Families spend less time together than ever before and because they are not seeing their offspring’s behavior in public as much (and hence have the opportunity to teach and discipline) children are not receiving the attention and training they have in past generations. Parents do not see their children as a reflection of themselves, which of course they really are. The ill-mannered adults with whom we interact today are yesterday’s children. (And of course today’s brats…)