Please, Excuse Me... Thank You!
Welcome to Earth.
We’re a planet of over-stressed workaholics constantly capturing and cataloging memories from our mobile devices to enjoy…well, later. We’re busy. Our world is instantaneous, mass-produced, pre-packaged, under-read, over-confident and 24/7.
We’re unequivocally over-stimulated and it’s had a profound effect on the way we treat one another. The privacy and anonymity of a username, avatar, and computer screen seemingly soften the consequences of our actions. Friendships form and dissolve, founded not on years of personal interaction, trust, and respect, but with the click of a mouse. Human decency, courtesy, social graces – once cornerstones of our social culture – are now rare commodities.
Consider current usage of The Magic Word. Please, right? The mental association is so unconsciously immediate that we take its ubiquity for granted. Most of us remember a time when using “please” and its sidekick phrases “thank you”, “excuse me”, and “you’re welcome” was an indication of good breeding, good manners, and attentiveness. These used to be highly-valued social traits. Unfortunately, these phrases are quickly disappearing from our common vernacular. In this episode of Men + Etiquette, we take an educated look at the why and how of this social erosion. We begin, as always, at the beginning.
If you’ve turned on your television lately, the why behind decay in social politeness should be readily apparent. Exaggerated reality shows fabricate train-wreck dramas that suck in and anesthetize impressible viewers. Pseudo-celebrities and political role models warp our perception of reality as the antics of their consequence-free lives are over-reported and over-analyzed by ratings-starved entertainment-news programs and websites. The impact is we seem to celebrate ignorance, reward foolishness, and exalt pursuit of pleasure over fulfillment. “Please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” have been reduced to poor, get-out-of-jail-free, excuses for rude behavior. Worse, they’re thrown about caustically, used as sarcastic periods on expressions of bad attitude. But TV isn’t the only culprit.
There is no right answer.
At some point, we went from responsible citizens with a duty to uphold the tenets of society to over-sensitive, unique snowflakes whose social shortcomings are simply manifestations of self-expression. Fast-forward a few years and the era of entitlement rears its ugly head – not entitlement to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, but entitlement to our opinions and the declaration thereof, good, bad, ignorant, or otherwise. When self-expression draws negative attention or punishment, people decry the “haters” as censoring their individuality.
Sadly, lack of respect for others is now regarded as confidence – a devil-may-care attitude reinforced and encouraged by perniciously homogenous social groups. Apathy is cool – awareness, consideration for others is not. Take a stroll down the streets of New York, Miami, or just about any major metropolitan city and the absence of consideration is striking. There are more human beings on the planet than ever before – we’re shoulder-to-shoulder, yet we’re becoming dangerously desensitized to human contact.
When technology exceeds humanity.
Life’s irony is that change is its one and only constant. Technology, fashion, language, and society have evolved over time, as they should. Yet no one could have predicted the scale or rate at which they have influenced social change. Much of this change is both necessary and good: women and minorities have made incredible progress on the road to equality love and gay marriage follow close on their heels, and technology has made the problem of physical distance nearly obsolete in human interaction.
As distance shrinks, our biological instinct for energy conservation kicks in, and we spend ever more time watching the world from behind a screen where it’s much easier to be overly-critical and rude. We use “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me,” but instead of marking the line between a demand and request, these words are in danger of becoming something else entirely – insults.
The celebrated outlaw
There used to be a price for social jackassery – that price was talent. The great Hunter S. Thompson exemplifies this. A brilliant writer and thinker, with a taste for alcohol and illegal drugs, he pioneered Gonzo journalism in the Nixon era; but he was – and I say this with the utmost respect for the man – a total asshole. This isn’t to say that genius has or should ever excuse boorish behavior, but amazing abilities are often accompanied by an inability to function normally in society. We kind of get that. In exchange for their gifts, we give them a longer leash. It’s not right or wrong – it just is.
What social contract have we made to allow undignified people to tramp, unfettered, across our stages, televisions, and movie screens? Rather than tire of rude, inconsiderate ignorance; we reward it. The more explicitly outspoken a pseudo-celebrity is, the more we lavish our attention, which translates into earnings. Their model teaches a terrible lesson: compassion is superfluous in our society. Our ‘dog-eat-dog’, win-at-all-costs world is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
An eye for an eye.
Combine a lack of accountability with self-absorbed entitlement and you have a recipe for social apathy. It is the polar opposite of the Golden Rule – withhold from others what they withhold from you. It is the culmination of everything I have written above, an utter lack of social responsibility, a national game of liability hot potato. We used to take pride in our ability to establish and follow social rules – that respectful distance between other people and our opinions of them lent the world a little romance. These days, I’m having trouble feeling the love.
So what’s a dignified gent to do? Stop keeping score, be persistent, and think before you speak. We used to get along better as humans. We understood walking out among society required tacit consent to a social contract with our brethren. The magic words don’t excuse bad behavior and they’ve no place in sarcasm. They can, and should, be used to express genuine consideration for others. They do not devalue your individuality – they demonstrate an understanding of a common good.
The best you can do is live with purpose. We won’t all have the same value system, but we never did. Understand that you give respect to get it and the dignified man is always the first to take the high road. Please, don’t be THAT guy; thank you for reading, now you’ll have to excuse me.