I am shamefaced at the thought of what a knucklehead I’ve been. I’ve been discourteous. Even worse, I know better, and still, I’ve acted poorly. I’d blame it on the Internet, but technology could only be partly at fault.
For weeks I have had the phrase “Mind you Ps and Qs” in the back of my mind, reminding me to behave. As a freelance writer, I count on people calling me back so I can interview them for stories. Sometimes, particularly with cold contacts, I won’t get a return phone call saying they’re not interested. But very often, they’ll return my call, even though they don’t know me. The help of these people, though, contrasts greatly with the behavior of others.
Maybe I’m cranky, but I’m sick of the lack of professional courtesy that I encounter. I regularly try to contact people who don’t respond to emails, or don’t return phone calls, or fail to return calls in a timely fashion. But what got me thinking about the lack of courtesy that the Internet has helped to engender were my recent attempts to network with a group of young people who have a marketing firm. These folks are friends of a friend of mine. I had expected a good response, and after speaking with one of them and emailing three of them (one of whom I’d met in the past), I’d received no reply.
You could blame their unresponsiveness on being green, but these folks have had major successes. Which gets me back to “mind your Ps and Qs.” The phrase is an instruction to mind your manners, or to behave properly. But it also can mean be on your toes, be alert.
It dawned on me recently that I needed to remember to mind my manners and to be on my toes. A while back I ran into a local merchant with whom I’m acquainted, who recently tried to connect me with a small business owner who employs freelance writers. I was shocked to see Gail at a local grocery store—I said "Hi" and then turned to walk away. I was embarrassed, because I’d been too rushed to follow up with the friend of hers, who I’d contacted for work. As I turned to flee, Gail said, “Wait, hold on.”
I went over to explain that I hadn’t followed up with a resume after talking with her friend, Harriet, because I’d been busy with work. I felt like an idiot. I knew this woman, and she’d tried to help me, and I‘d blown it. I finally did follow up with Harriet recently, and she was kind and easygoing and I may work with her yet. But the recognition of being confronted by Gail on my bad behavior stung for a while after our grocery store meeting. I realized I’m as inconsiderate as the unmannerly people who annoy me.
These days of email have created a netherworld of dissociated feelings, where people often don’t recognize their rudeness. With email, the lack of a response is a de facto negative response, and many people don’t think there’s anything wrong with such indifference. But responding to an email is as simple as pushing a few keys, though that often is too much trouble for many of us. The lowest common denominator seems to be decreasing, and we’re all being pulled down. It’s tough to fight. You have to concentrate on behaving properly, because there’s no one around to remind you every minute.
Back in prep school, our school had a director of etiquette. This faculty member ensured that everything in the dining hall went according to the rules. Food was to be served to the tables in a certain order, and the rulebook governed behavior at those tables. “When I’m finished with you, you’ll be able to dine with the Queen,” the pursed-lipped Director of Etiquette would tell us.
Dine with her, yes, but would we return Her Majesty’s call? These social niceties are the lubricant of 21st century society, just as they were in previous centuries, yet we often forget them. Maybe we could learn something from cultures that have different ideas regarding polite behavior.
I recently contacted some Japanese guys for a story. Unlike many of my countrymen, the Japanese responded to my emails very quickly. One of the guys responded with an email in which he referred to his friends and me with the suffix –san, as in “Jonathan-san.”I looked up the meaning of –san and I was pleased to see it is a title of respect. Honorifics in Japanese are referred to as keigo, or “polite language.” But I could tell from the context that the “san” was meant to be polite, so the meaning was immediately clear.
Our society could use more polite language and more polite behavior. Most of us know how to behave properly, yet we often behave boorishly. We work to earn a good professional reputation, yet we forget the social graces that are only elective rules because the people who created them were polite. Many of us need to work on keeping our commitments—even the small ones, like replying to emails, returning calls, and following up. So I ask your forgiveness, Gail-san. And I appreciate your understanding, Harriet-san. I have been busy, and disrespectful. I’m working on it.
Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org