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The Death of Common Courtesy and the Corrosion of the Golden Rule

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In teaching courtesy to children, it's been noted that "etiquette is a way of acting; true courtesy is a heart attitude" of concern for the other person. Seems many of us were absent the day that was taught. "Please," "Excuse me," and "Thank you" have in some instances in the post millennium society, been replaced with rote platitudes such as "Thank you for shopping here."

Sometimes they have disappeared into a black hole leaving a deafening silence (like the one I sometimes experience after mentioning that my daughter passed away; adults unable to say "I am sorry for your loss"). In other cases they've been replaced with ruthlessness and viciousness.

Perhaps the biggest loss in the abyss of lost courtesies has been the lost art of a sincere, caring apology. Apologizing is fashionable and often self-protecting (like the "I was drunk" excuse) especially in the public sphere - but being sincerely contrite is strictly passe. Bill Cinton has been called the grandmaster of the non-apology apology. This, despite the fact that spinmeisters and attorneys - know all too well that there are few things as engaging and disarming as a swift, heartfelt apology.

There are, it is said, four qualities of a real apology:

1) Sincerity - using words like "I", "mistake" and "sorry".

2) Speed - without the lengthy delay that often sets in when a committee or a lawyer is involved

3) Clarity - simple language, well organized, free of jargon and information overkill

4) Being unequivocal - avoid blaming someone else for what happened or making excuses.

Chris Brown's apology regarding his beating of Rihanna flunked on all counts. President Obama was right on target when he said: "I screwed up" upon withdrawing nominations of those who failed to pay taxes. "I'm here on television saying I screwed up, and that's part of the era of responsibility. It's not never making mistakes; it's owning up to them and trying to make sure you never repeat them and that's what we intend to do."

But this is rare, especially in the public realm where Nancy Gibbs ("The Lost Art of Saying I'm Sorry," 3/18/09 Time) notes "apologies now play like vaudeville: the extravagant remorse of disgraced televangelists, the snarled "I'm sorry' of celebrities who exude regret at being caught rather than being wrong, the artful admissions of politicians who want credit for their confessions without any actual cost."

Is it generational? Am I just old and cranky? Turning into a cross between Louis Black and Andy Rooney, with a touch of the ghost of Rodney Dangerfield complaining about getting no respect?

Is it technology: the Internet, email, texting that has eroded our manners? In part, yes. It is far easier to be rude in a faceless and often totally anonymous atmosphere. But I believe there is another cause: confusion of an apology with an admission of guilt, especially in such a litigious society. Take for example, a simple tap of your car into the bumper of the car in front of you. Yesteryear, people get out and said: "I'm sorry." Today: "It must have been dented before" -- "your brake light didn't work."

In addition to fear of being held liable for admitted wrong-doing, there is a need to be right at all costs. "There is no more destructive force in human affairs -- not greed, not hatred -- than the desire to have been right. Non-attachment to possessions is trivial when compared with non-attachment to opinions." Mark Kleiman, professor of public policy. If it is true that to err is human and we lack the confidence to admit being wrong, are we losing our humanity?

In his essay entitled "Apology Subverted: The Commodification of Apology," Lee Taft, the former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, came to the conclusion that something must be missing in our system of law because even after successful settlements, the wronged clients are not satisfied with the outcome. After all his years in practice in the field of injury law Taft realized that people need meaningful apology from the wrongdoers in order to fully recover from the inflicted wrongs. Likewise, The University of Michigan Health System found that doctors averted or reduced malpractice suits by apologizing for mistakes.

Others believe not apologizing goes even deeper. "[S]omewhere in the course of our fin de siècle excess," notes Gibbs, "we corrupted the culture of contrition as well." Aaron Lazare, "Go Ahead Say You're Sorry" Psychology Today (Jan-Feb 1995) 22 notes that "the greatest impediment to apology is a pervasive cultural attitude that views apology as a weakness, an emotional expression antithetical to traditional American values of autonomy and independence." Humility has become a sign of weakness rather than strength of character.

The fear of being weak could also account for the absence of "thank yous" and "pleases" as well. In a world of rights and entitlements, many just feel everything is owed or "due" them. They got everything they got because they "deserve" it, so no need to thank anyone.

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Author of "shedding light on...The Dark Side of Adoption" (1988) and "The Stork Market: America's Multi-Billion Dollar Unregulated Adoption Industry" (2007) (more...)

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Lazarus Long said the first sign of a collapsing c... by martinweiss on Saturday, Jan 2, 2010 at 12:52:20 PM
"You Lie!"The best possible example of what your a... by Frish on Saturday, Jan 2, 2010 at 2:25:25 PM
Mirah, I am sorry for your loss, and thanks for a ... by Debbie Scally on Sunday, Jan 3, 2010 at 12:56:47 AM
The feeling of a need to appologise comes from the... by David Chester on Sunday, Jan 3, 2010 at 5:06:48 AM