On being ... like Rip Van Winkle

By Ingrid Sapona

The story of Rip Van Winkle flashed into my head the other day. You remember him -- he’s the guy who fell asleep and woke up twenty years later and was confused by how much society had changed. (I don’t remember much else about it -- and it if weren’t for Google and Wikipedia -- I couldn’t even have told you it was a story by Washington Irving.)

Good old Rip came to mind as I was searching for some explanation for why it seems to me that the rules of common courtesy that I learned growing up have changed -- drastically. Could it be that I’ve been asleep for a long time and have woken up in a very different world, like Rip? Though the place looks familiar, things have changed. People seem more focused on themselves than I remember and so it seems they don’t even know when they’re being rude -- or maybe they just don’t care.

I’m not talking about things like road rage or other types of aggressive behaviour -- I’ve certainly been awake enough to notice that’s escalated over the past 20 years. I’m talking about simple, everyday interactions you might have with strangers -- situations that require little more than acknowledgment of the someone else’s existence, but that seem to be viewed as a waste of one’s time, or even as an opportunity to assert one’s own importance at someone else’s expense. I think a few examples will help you understand what I’m talking about.

The past few months I’ve been contacting potential clients. I always start with an e-mail to briefly introduce myself and I explain why I’m contacting them. I ask them to phone me when they have a few minutes, but I also say I’ll follow up with a call to them. My experience is that no one phones in response to such e-mails. (I know -- everyone gets too many e-mails as it is… Fair enough.)

So, about a week after e-mailing, I dutifully call. Nine times out of 10 I get voice mail. (Could it be that everyone in the western world has call display? I suspect that’s the case -- heaven knows no one wants to chance having to talk to someone they don’t know.) Though I prefer not to leave a message, after about the third attempt to speak with someone, I relent and leave a voice mail.

Invariably, the first voice mail message goes unanswered. It took me a long time to accept this as standard behaviour, but now I do, in part because a dear friend once explained that at work she never responds to an initial phone call because, “if it’s important enough, they’ll call back”. With this in mind -- and mindful of my mother’s admonition about not being a pest -- I wait a week and phone again.

This business of me waiting and then calling again -- or, more accurately, the business of me waiting and leaving messages -- often goes on for quite some time. Though every unreturned call frustrates me, I soldier on, knowing that if I don’t at least make the effort, I’ll never get any business. What I find most amazing about this game is the fact that so many people have no qualms about just ignoring me. Granted, in contacting them I’m putting them on the spot, but if they’re not interested, a polite “thanks, but no thanks”, will do. I know saying no is hard for some people -- but by ignoring someone you’re not just showing that you don’t have the wherewithal to say no, you’re also demeaning them -- saying they’re not even important enough to merit you taking time to respond.

Being ignored isn’t the only form of rudeness I’ve encountered in trying to drum up business. I had one woman tell me she’s very busy and that there was “no point” in talking to me. Clearly what she meant is there’s nothing in it for her so she saw no reason to give me the time of day. Then there have been people who say they’ll find time to speak with me but that our conversation must be scheduled, so we e-mail back and forth trying to set something up. Then, when the appointed time comes, I phone and they’re not in. (When that happens I console myself with the thought that they’re not the type I’d want as a client anyway…)

But it’s not just in business that I’ve noticed more-and-more people going about as though other people don’t exist, or as though they don’t matter. When I use the cardio equipment in the gym I like to read. If someone’s in there when I get there and they’re watching t.v., so be it. If I get there and no one else is in the room, I leave the t.v. off and read in peace. I can’t tell you how often it’s happened that I’ve been alone and reading and someone comes in and flips on the t.v. without so much as asking if I mind if they turn it on, much less if I have a preference as to what channel they tune in. What’s with that? On those rare occasions when someone does ask if they can turn it on, I always say sure, partly just to reward them for being courteousness enough to ask!

I know these examples may seem trivial, but I think they’re symptomatic of increased disregard we have for one another. Extending common courtesy is acknowledgment of the fact that we’re all human beings and is a way of connecting with others. It seems to me that one of the hallmarks of a civil society is people being courteous to, and respectful of, others. I know everyone’s under all sorts of pressure and life is hectic. But tell me, am I the only one who believes that our overall quality of life would improve if folks just showed some common courtesies to others?

© 2008 Ingrid Sapona


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