Rene HenryRene Henry

For years now, journalists have written about people growing ruder every day. We have a generation that doesn’t understand or practice the basics of old-fashioned common courtesy. They obviously never learned from their parents, and their children will not learn from them, which bodes even worse for the future.

“There is no doubt American society has changed dramatically in a generation with respect to manners and social discourse,” said Dr. Douglas Fields, neurobiologist and author of Why We Snap. Watch a public entry or elevator and see how many men fail to hold the door for a lady, or for anyone for that matter, regardless of gender. Too many people don’t know it’s rude to not answer letters and emails or return telephone calls. Technology has made it much easier to communicate, yet few people do. Until the era of junk mail, spam and robocalls, I had a policy that all communiques would be answered and within a set period of time. I responded to every unsolicited résumé and calls from vendors seeking my business. I did not use a form letter and made an effort to personalize each response. This policy paid a major dividend when several years later it resulted in a major client.

A failure to respond can be costly. One university lost a million-dollar gift when a professor refused to thank or return a donor’s call. It cost a major home builder much more to resolve hundreds of sales rescissions because a secretary failed to have her boss return repeated calls from a home buyer.

In his book Public Relations Impacts the World, Aaron Cushman devoted a chapter to how rudeness and disrespect are becoming prevalent and questions if anyone tells the truth anymore. “The list of famous people and corporations who forget what truth means goes on and on,” he wrote.

Cushman also noted that university professors report students show rudeness and disrespect as a matter of course, and they must be reminded to refrain from surfing the web, answering cell phones, texting or randomly leaving and entering the classroom during a lecture. “Our modern American culture seems to place more emphasis on the acquisition of money than on ethics, courtesy, and integrity,” he said.

Some people aren’t intentionally rude but simply just don’t know any better. Ellen Byron in The Wall Street Journal wrote that a failure to respond to invitations is becoming an increasing problem, because too many unexpected guests appear at functions. I doubt if few people even know that RSVP stands for répondez s’il vous plaît or even what it means. Another lost practice is the personal handwritten note. I honestly believe some people today would use an email or tweet to express sympathy for someone’s loss. And the proliferation of one-way emails discourages any kind of response or feedback. Why would anyone send you an email and not allow you to respond? Yet many do, including some members of Congress.

When it comes to truth in advertising, I believe the cruise line industry is one of the biggest violators. It’s notorious for its two-for-one and “60 percent off the catalog price” pricing promotions, but has that trip ever once sold for the catalog price? In a super market you get two apples for the price of one, but if you want to buy only one you can. Not so in the cruise line industry. I just returned from a cruise, and as a single traveler, was charged a penalty markup price of 200 percent. The Internet is filled with complaints about fictitious pricing, but no one expects the Federal Trade Commission to take action, because the industry is too lawyered-up and spends millions to lobby their special interests in Congress.

But should Corporate American be exempt from telling lies? In a 2007 ruling, the Supreme Court of the State of Washington by a 5-4 decision made it legal for politicians to lie, ruling that the First Amendment protects political campaign lies. At the same time, it declared unconstitutional a law passed by the state legislature that barred candidates from deliberately making false and even malicious statements about their opponents.

A new generation doesn’t expect it. I attribute this to the proliferation of social media and our multitude of electronic devices. There’s little personal communication between people anymore. In Seattle, I do as much defensive walking as driving anymore to avoid being knocked over by a pedestrian whose ears are filled with buds and being so intent using a pad/pod/phone that s/he is oblivious to the world around them.

I wonder if many people even realize they’re being rude when they let a cellphone ring in the theatre, restaurant or bar in areas marked “no cellphone,” or when they talk loudly during a movie, play or concert, or fail to yield or signal when turning while driving, or when they barge into a queued line, or let children run loose, cry, scream or talk during any performance, or when they neglect to pick up their towels, newspapers or cups at a health club, or when they fail to give up a seat to a woman, senior or someone disabled on a bus or train. This list could go on and on and on.

Dress has changed throughout the years. I remember when you wouldn’t think of boarding an airplane unless properly attired in a suit and tie. Today some businesses have adopted a business casual code. Many restaurants eased restrictions on ties and jackets. Some have gone so far as to allow diners in tank tops, flip flops and wearing baseball caps turned backwards.

When I worked in Washington, D.C., the proper dress was a suit and tie, even in 100-degree weather. In my last job, my boss had the same suit and tie policy and our business was in the Caribbean and Central America. I remember when an invitation said “informal” it meant black tie and tuxedo and “formal” meant white tie and tails.

A lack of common courtesy, as well as poor or non-existent customer service, has led to a number of avoidable and costly crises. Corporate America is in a position to take a leadership role as well as an educational one by reminding the next generation what behavior is courteous and acceptable.


Rene A. Henry is a writer and author of nine books including “Customer Service: the cornerstone of success” and “Communicating In A Crisis.” Many of his commentaries and information on his books are posted on his website at