I met my friend Jack on the way into church Sunday morning, leading a parade of late arrivers — you know the type, we get there late and leave early.
He turned to me and said, “Watch this. I’ll stand here and hold the door for everyone, and no one will say thank you.”
It was a sad commentary on churchgoers, but what could I say? “Let he, or she, who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Jack was a prophet. Everyone walked in and no one thanked him. “Courtesy is a thing of the past,” he grumbled. They probably don’t teach it in the schools anymore. After all, it takes effort for adults, especially parents, to require kids to say “please” and “thank you,” and it takes even greater effort for adults to say “please” and “thank you.”
And what about all those other courteous gestures such as holding the door, or letting someone else go first, or slowing down so another motorist can move into your lane, rather than speeding up?
Lack of courtesy is part of a larger cultural epidemic — the crisis of decency. In previous generations, civility and decency were second nature to us, but times have changed.
When he was 15, George Washington compiled a book titled “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.”
It included this admonition: “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.”
And this wise advice, which may be useful to you someday: “Kill no vermin such as fleas, lice or ticks in the sight of others. If you see any filth or thick spittle, put your foot dexterously upon it. If it be upon the clothes of your companions, put it off privately, and if it be upon your own clothes, return thanks to him who puts it off.”
And this thought, which is appropriate in any age: “Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another even though he be your enemy.”
On the contrary, modern Americans are often ready to laugh at the misfortune of others, and it’s a particularly profitable pastime for talk radio, reality TV and comedy routines.
The Internet contributes to the problem by provoking meanness and discourtesy. People scream and yell and insult for no good reason, and they’re not held accountable for their abuse or the reputations they ruin. Even meek and puny imbeciles can pretend to be powerful and important in the blogosphere.
Yes, decency is passé in the era of vulgarity.
Consider the tragic case of the two Australian shock jocks who duped a London nurse into putting their phone call through to Kate Middleton by saying they were Prince Charles and the Queen of England. The nurse committed suicide, and the radio station blamed the hospital for not counseling her.
The merry jesters said they never meant any harm, but I’m convinced the sum total of their so-called pranks causes a lot of misery and humiliation for others, along with being very profitable for the station.
Yes, there’s a crisis of decency. We find humor in demeaning the helpless. We laugh at the misery of others. We view rudeness as privilege and we view courtesy as weakness.
Maybe it’s time to change. Maybe it’s time to start asking ourselves: “WWGWD?”
What would George Washington do?
Joe Pisani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.