The Death of Common Courtesy

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

In 2014, I walked across the United States to raise awareness of the needs of children with emotional and behavioral problems and developmental disabilities. I wrote a book about my journey called “Life Lessons Learned – Amazing Stories of my walk across America for Children”.  I wrote of my journey because I was stunned by the overwhelming generosity and kindness of the people I met along the way. In fact, I mentioned that in the 147 days of my walk that I did not have one negative experience.

What has changed in the last five years has stunned me. Since 2014, I have never seen such an appalling change in a nation’s character. The nature of civil discourse has sunk to new lows.  Perhaps it was always like this but my walk heightened my perception of the problem.

When I discussed this concern with different people whom I have met in my new role as a legislator, many people noticed the change in civil discourse but usually chose to blame that change on others.

I am not sure about anyone else, but I can guarantee you that I am responsible for my own conduct. Blaming this issue on another person is irresponsible. It fails to take in consideration that you are responsible for yourself and your own behavior.

The nature of dialogue changed, in my mind, when people started to feel marginalized and condemned because of their faith, locality, and other labels others chose to attribute to them.  The dehumanization of others within society contributes to this feeling of detachment from the comments made about others.

Recently I proposed a very controversial bill to help keep the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania out of bankruptcy. The reaction from some to a potential solution to the problem that has existed for centuries was predictable but I was stunned by the tone and absolute abject disrespect that people had for one another in the dialogue.

I noticed a generational divide. The feedback that I received from both young and old alike was surprising in the level of disrespect that one generation had for another. The level of civil discourse deteriorated to lows that I would never have dreamed imaginable in my lifetime.

Comments made by people of my age group about the younger generation and vice versa showed absolute contempt for one another.

Generational divides are not new.  That divide has existed since time began. What is new is the public vehicle and forum in which people are willing to memorialize for all time in social media their contempt for one another.

When I hear a school shooting, I cannot help but wonder if the nature of discourse on social media is not fueling this lack of respect we have for one another.

I used to think our financial problems were the biggest crisis facing our nation but now I am convinced the biggest crisis is our loss of a moral compass.

This lack of respect does not just stop with social media. Recently, I was coming out of a restaurant and held the door open for two persons.  They both walked in and never bothered to acknowledge the courtesy of having the door opened for them.   Seeing this type of behavior much more frequently from people of all ages, I decided to do an experiment.

In the experiment I decided to track the next 100 encounters in which a common courtesy was extended to someone.  The results were astonishing.

While the results are not scientific, when I shared my comments with friends and co-workers I was stunned by the stories I heard about their experiences.  I thought I would share some of them.

  • Greeting a waiter, waitress, or checkout person with a “Good evening” or the like before they greet you.  I was amazed at the expression of gratitude from servers who frequently felt ignored by the customer.  Try it and see what happens.
  • Holding the door open for anyone of any age.  The number of people who just walked through without any comment exceeded 50% consistently regardless of where I have done it.
  • When someone asked me how I was doing, I would say that I’m doing fine and then immediately asked how they were doing. The reaction to my question was priceless. Usually, I would get a comment like “well that’s the first time that’s happened this week” or “I certainly didn’t expect that” and from that moment on the conversation changed for the better.

Unless we collectively decide were going to change this, civil discourse will never improve.

This problem begins and ends with you and me.

When a society loses its sense of community, the eventual breakdown of civil liberties and freedoms will occur.    Cultures which lose their identity will soon perish.

Even George Washington noticed this problem. He wrote a book “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior”.   He outlined 110 rules of civility. The first one was: “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.”

Perhaps we should all take a lesson from our first president.

Thank you for your time and attention. Be kind to one another.

Frank Ryan, CPA specializes in corporate restructuring and lectures on ethics for the state CPA societies.  Frank is a retired Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and served in Iraq and briefly in Afghanistan.  He is on numerous boards of publicly traded and non-profit organizations.  He can be reached at [email protected]