- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

The recently released Public Agenda report on Rudeness in America reports that 70 percent of our fellow citizens feel that the lack respect and courtesy in our country is a serious problem and 61 percent feel that things are getting worse. Road rage and cell phones notwithstanding, these findings prompt me to offer a slightly different, more positive view. I believe that, as a nation, we have bottomed out on the rudeness meter and are on our way to a sustained recovery of classy behavior.

What makes me draw such a Pollyanna-ish conclusion? Two words air travel.

I fly a lot. I was on one of the first flights back in the air on September 13 and I had to change planes. Since September 11, I have seen fewer flights, longer lines, tighter rules and more polite fellow citizens. While in no way intending to trivialize what happened, I can vouch for at least one unintended positive outcome: The reawakening of our collective national consciousness has also made us more polite.

My theory is that, status quo ante, we were all spending our time looking out for No. 1, and if rudeness, brusqueness, and even unethical behavior (witness Enron) got us there with greater alacrity than poise so be it. Post Osama, post Arthur Andersen, post-anthrax America has become a team, with teammates treating each other with renewed respect.

As a nation, we summited the peak of rudeness immediately following the 2000 presidential election. It was a shameful period of childish behavior by every talking head on television, a prolonged "special report" on our complete lack of class. The beginning of the end of rudeness and the commencement of our climb to restored civility began with the stock market "adjustment," and the events of September 11 gave it added momentum. We were all taken down a peg and given a more unobstructed view of life's true priorities, specifically the importance of our homes and families.

Which brings me to the issue of online rudeness. My anecdotal experience, mostly based on the actions of my highly Internet savvy 11- and 15-year-old sons, leads me to believe that America's youth are as tired and frustrated with online rudeness as adults are with the more traditional variety. "Dissing," whether via e-mail, instant messaging or in chat rooms, is a causus belli to be avoided at all costs for fear of being blocked or, even worse, ignored the ultimate adolescent death penalty. The Public Agenda study points to too-short skirts and tube tops, low-hanging pants and visible underwear as further signs of rudeness among America's youth. Not so. It's fashion and it's no different than kids with "hippy" hair or women wearing pants were not so many years back. It's not rudeness it's change. Not an unimportant differentiation.

The report also contains some extremely good news. According to Public Agenda, 59 percent of those surveyed say that things have "gotten better" when it comes to treating black Americans with respect and courtesy, 51 percent "better" for people with physical handicaps, and 50 percent improved for the gay population. These numeric leaps are far more important signs of positive forward motion then complaints about an increasing usage of foul language are the other way. Clearly, one of the most offensive words in the English language, the "N" word, is on the decline and none too soon.

Today's new civility can also be seen at the movies (if not so much in the movies). Before the frantic rumba of soda and popcorn, before the coming attractions hit the big screen, there is a new animated segment telling people to turn off their cell phones and pagers. The deal can be closed after the film is over. How refreshing.

Michael Douglas' famous line from the movie "Wall Street" that "greed is good," is the epitome of a "no class" individual. In fact, if "what's good for business is good for America," then rudeness is most certainly on the way out. Almost half of those surveyed by Public Agenda say they have walked out of a business specifically because of bad service and the number is even higher among affluent Americans.

My mother always said that having money does nothing to give you class. "Class" comes from within. Ultimately, all we have to remember can be found in my favorite fortune cookie message: It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice.

(And say "thank you" to the kid who delivers the pizza.)

Peter J. Pitts is managing partner of Wired World and an adjunct professor at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

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