Editorial Notebook

October 18, 2003

DOES ANY of this sound familiar?

You take off work to wait at home for a plumber whose arrival time is offered only as a window of 8 a.m. to noon. He calls at 11:30 to say he'll try to be there by one-ish, but you've got a lunch and a doctor's appointment to get to.

At the restaurant, a large table is ready, but no one else is there. From voice-mail you learn the lunch date was canceled at the last minute, but not the reservation.

Now, you've got time to kill before the visit to the doctor, so you run some errands. They take longer than expected, making you late for the appointment. That doesn't matter, though, because two other patients have been booked in the same time slot. Ninety minutes later, you're finally at work long enough to return some calls before taking your turn as chauffeur for your 13-year-old's soccer practice.

Kids are already on the field when somebody announces the coach is sick and not coming.

On the way home, you remember you promised you would stop by a party at your neighbors' house. But you're too tired to go, and don't feel like calling to beg off.

Individual experiences may vary, but such incivility abounds. We seem to be in the throes of an epidemic of rude.

The evidence is mostly anecdotal but widespread. In both business and social relationships, Americans increasingly fail to honor time commitments. They don't show. They don't call. They don't even RSVP.

Service providers, from doctors and dentists to hair stylists, have so many no-shows many now call everyone on the appointment list a day or so in advance with a reminder. Dog boarders and restaurants have joined hoteliers in requiring credit card numbers to hold reservations.

Party givers provide e-mail addresses to make the RSVP quick and easy, but still wind up with a percentage of guests who never reply or worse: promise to come -- but don't, without explanation or apology.

And then there are those who simply sit and wait -- for repair people and contractors who all too often disappoint.

This lack of consideration for others feeds on itself in a destructive downward spiral, says P.M. Forni, a Johns Hopkins professor who lectures and writes on civility.

Many people fail to keep appointments because they are stressed out, overbooked, or simply forget. But sometimes, he says, they are, at least subconsciously, exacting payback for shabby treatment.

Management consultants, looking to curb no-show rates for physicians that run as high as 25 percent, agree.

They tell doctors that forcing patients to book far in advance and spend a long time in the waiting room sends a message of disrespect or lack of interest that encourages no-shows. They also find a direct correlation between weak doctor-patient relationships and medical malpractice suits.

The cost of inconsiderate behavior is not only financial, but psychological, Professor Forni warns.

It threatens the quality of personal relationships and social support that is essential to a long, serene, healthy life.

People who don't work and play well with others may have some success early in their lives, but are likely to find themselves isolated and alone during their later years -- a condition that can lead to early death.

By contrast, those who are thoughtful of others -- their time, their effort, their feelings -- tend to be rewarded with deep and abiding relationships that greatly enrich their lives.

Manners count. Next time you've got a commitment you're tempted to blow off, think about the other guy. Odds are the favor will be returned.

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