Valley Voices

The martial arts of common courtesy

By John G. Taylor

We continue to screw up two of our most powerful words: thank you. Share a “thank you” with a cashier. If you get a response, it’s: “No problem … Sure ... Who’s next?”

The airing of “You’re welcome” makes you gasp. And “It’s been my pleasure” transports you to Downton Abbey.

We’re nearly as lousy with “I’m sorry.”

Apart from the political realm, we’ve fallen so far in the art of civility in real life that it’s costing money and prompting action. Nearly every industry is attempting to hardwire customer service – aka, common courtesy – into its employees.

Hospital attorneys are even coaxing some administrators and doctors into injecting “I’m sorry for our errors” into oral and written explanations to patients and their families irrespective of lawsuits that often attend medical mistakes.

Most of us are forgiving folks. Just don’t spit in our faces if you’ve accidentally rammed a door into us. “What can I do to make it right?” goes a long way in affirming good will, especially if it can be made real – a complimentary meal, a write off of charges.

Doing the honorable thing has become such a surprise that I can easily recall three personal examples.

A jammed bathroom pocket door had trapped a granddaughter. She was in tears by the time we extricated her. We hired a carpenter and were satisfied with the outcome of his hours invested. He shook his head. Don’t give me your money, he said. Sorry, it doesn’t pass my muster.

Wow.

News reporters and editors often don’t see eye to eye. During my decades in the newspaper business, the office atmosphere was “condemn in public and praise in private.”

I once cautioned a Fresno Bee editor about a story I was covering on a Saturday night. Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan was scheduled to speak. He was regularly in the national spotlight, frequently criticized for anti-Semitic comments.

He would talk for hours – loading his most contentious remarks in his final 90 minutes. I’d listened to numerous speeches and knew the arc of his oratory. This won’t work within regular deadlines, I warned.

Deadlines are deadlines, the editor told me. We’ll publish what we can in the Sunday paper and trust that will be enough.

As usual, reality snickered at benchmarks.

Local television and radio had captured the midnight hour rhetoric, commanding the Sunday airwaves. Community leaders were outraged that their newspaper of record contained nary a word. And my byline was attached to a story that chronicled only the eloquent calm before the vitriolic storm.

The next day my editor sought me out. I blew it, he said. You were right and I should have figured something out. I’m sorry. Please write a follow-up story and make it right with the readers.

Wow. Never heard such self-effacing comments from an editor before or since.

Lastly, some expressions of honesty crack the mold. I was 30, living in Wisconsin when my mother died suddenly in the New York City area. During her wake, her physician – who’d taken care of me as a child back when doctors made house calls – pulled me aside.

I’m shocked and sorry, he said. I should have better monitored the potassium levels for her heart. As I struggled to react, he shook his head and then my hand, and walked out of my life.

As I near the age at which my mother died, I’m still astonished and refreshed by his “out of nowhere” candor and caring. And I’m a tad late. Thank you, doctor.

John G. Taylor, a former Fresno Bee reporter and editor, is owner/operator of The JT Communications Company LLC. Write to him at jtcommunicates@comcast.net

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