COMMON DISCOURTESY

People don’t return my phone calls. My emails, either. I have been engaged in a job search for nearly a year and a half, so I know about disappointment and frustration. I have applied for well over 100 jobs since the summer of 2012, and I can count on my fingers the number of responses I have received from actual human beings—not automated emails, mind you—even indicating receipt of my resume and cover letter. Some organizations haven’t even had the courtesy to set up an automated response. You sweat over a cover letter. You make sure your resume is accurate and tailored to the job in question. You check and double-check names, titles, addresses, and so on. You proofread your materials carefully, then proofread them again. You convert all your files to PDFs and check to make sure they converted properly. You compose a short email message and attach your files. Finally, after all that, with a great sense of relief and more than a little fear and trembling, you click on “Send.”

And nothing happens. Sure, your mail program goes “Whoosh,” telling you the message has gone. Yes, your message shows up in your “Sent” folder. But beyond that, the electrons that made up your precious correspondence may as well have drifted into outer space, never to be seen again. Or perhaps they float up into the atmosphere and get drawn into that mysterious cyberzone known as the Cloud, whence they will come again, raining down in little ones and zeros. Matter is neither created nor destroyed ... but it often comes back in unrecognizable and thoroughly unhelpful forms. Spam messages for “male enhancement,” for instance.

I do not wish to paint myself as holier-than-thou on this matter. I have been known to be slow in responding to phone, email, and text messages as well. But I always feel guilty about it, and almost always get around to it eventually. It’s disheartening to consider how many of my emails start out with the line, “Sorry for the delay in responding.” I can think of a couple of people whose messages I never answered, going back three, four, even ten years. It gnaws at my conscience to this day, and I wouldn’t put it past me to sit down sometime, bite the bullet, and reply. “Remember that question you asked me back in 2008?” I will say. “The one I never responded to? Sorry ‘bout that. Anyway, here’s what I think....”

My failures on this score, however, do not exculpate others for their transgressions. One might say with some justification, “Serves you right,” but that’s really a matter between me and God or the Karma Police or whoever keeps track of these things. Just because I respond slowly sometimes doesn’t give others a free pass to behave badly as well. After all, even though I tend to take things way too personally, in my rational mind I know that these organizations and individuals have not targeted me specifically for some kind of cosmic payback. I’m probably just one of the many they treat with unprofessionalism and neglect. It may not be their policy to be rude or dismissive, but it certainly appears to be their common practice.

I see in this a symptom of a larger breakdown in civility, manners, and etiquette in contemporary society. When you can go to the counter at a fast food restaurant or office supply store and have the sullen teenagers employed there look at you once and then go on about their business without any further acknowledgment of your existence, that’s a symptom. When you are talking with someone and she takes a phone call in the middle of your conversation as a matter of course, without so much as an “Excuse me,” or an “I’m sorry, but I need to take this,” or a “Screw you” (although that is the message that comes through loud and clear), that’s a symptom. When you’re riding on the bus or train, or sitting in a waiting room, or, God help me, visiting a public restroom, and you can’t get away from some idiot carrying on a phone conversation at full volume, that’s a symptom. As a culture, we have forgotten our manners. We have forgotten how to say, “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Pardon me.” We have experienced a severe decline in common courtesy, common sense, and common decency.

I hereby resolve to return phone calls and emails and to respond to other requests in a timely manner. There’s a text I neglected to answer that I need to get to tomorrow. I wouldn’t want anybody to think the things about me that I think about all those people who still haven’t returned my calls. Those thoughts are neither courteous nor decent.