One of the most annoying things in life—ranking right up there with unsolicited calls from telemarketers—is having to call a service provider to report a problem.  No matter who it is, the cable provider, the bank, or the phone service itself, their customer-service department never seems able to take my call immediately.

I find myself pressing button after button in response to a robotic voice guiding me, supposedly helpfully, through a menu of confusing choices—when all I want is to talk to a live human being.  By the time I’m able to do that, sometimes as long as forty minutes later, I am yelling angrily, almost incoherently, at the person unlucky enough to have drawn me.


It bothers me because I resent being rendered inchoate.

So, out of frustration, and because I harbour a latent evil streak, I have recently begun to fight back.  But, like all good generals, I fight on a battlefield of my choosing—and that field is not when I have called them, only to end up stuck on IGNORE…or, as the service-providers call it, HOLD.

No, the ground I fight on is when they call me.  And believe me, they’re always calling—the cable service with a new package of channels they feel I won’t want to miss; the bank with an incredible savings opportunity, offering, for a limited time only, 0.05% with a minimum $5000 deposit; the duct-cleaners, promising they can rid my home of the nasty critters living in the HVAC system, poisoning the very air I breathe; the hucksters telling me in tones of barely-suppressed excitement that I’ve won a free trip to Hawaii, if I will first agree to attend an investment seminar.


They are omnipresent, these people, lurking on the other end of every solicitation call I receive.  But they have finally met their match in me.  Once I realize it’s a sales rep on the line, the ensuing conversation goes something like this—

REP:  Good afternoon, sir…

ME:  Excuse me, before you begin, would you prefer English, français, or Español?

REP:  Ahh, English please.  Are you…

ME:  Are you calling with regard to existing accounts, bill payment, customer service, technical assistance, sales, or some other service?

REP:  I’m calling to interest you in…

ME:  Okay, sales.  Before you go further, let me place you on HOLD for a brief moment.  I have someone on my other line, but I can assure you your call is important to me, so please don’t go away.


I then go away for as long as two or three minutes, leaving the caller dangling on the line.  When I come back, if he or she is no longer there, I gently end the call.  On occasion, however, the unfortunate caller has chosen to wait, and so the conversation resumes.

ME:  With whom am I speaking, please?

REP:  Me?  Ahh, I’m Hector, and I’m calling to…

ME:  Before we continue, Hector, I have to inform you that this call is being recorded to ensure quality service and customer satisfaction.

REP:  Recorded?

ME:  Of course.

REP:  Sir, that is highly unusual…

ME:  Yes, I’m sure.  Also, I must ask you a couple of questions to confirm your identity.  What is the name of your firm, what is your employee number, and at what number may I reach you on a call-back?

REP:  Sir, we don’t give out that…

ME:  You don’t?  But you will ask for similar information from me, will you not?

REP:  Yes, of course, but that’s for your own…

ME:  Hector, I know you have something very important to tell me about, but before you do, I want to let you know about my brief survey.

REP:  Survey?

ME:  At the end of this call, when you’ve finished your sales pitch, I’m going to ask you five short questions, each of which will have a choice of three answers.  For each question, you will choose either A, B, or C, whichever best describes your experience on this call with me today.  Do you agree to take this survey?  Please answer yes or no.

REP:  [frustrated] Sir, I think we have a misunder…

frustrated call center man

ME:  [impatient] I’m sorry, Hector, was that a yes or a no?

REP:  [desperate] Sir, we don’t respond to…

ME:  [hectoring]  Ex-cuse me!  You do remember that this call is being recorded, right?  Is it not important to you that our conversation reflect a high level of satisfaction on my part?

REP:  [whimpering]  Sir, please, this is…

ME:  [pityingly]  Hector, do you know what number you’ve called?

REP:  [thoroughly cowed]  No, sir, I’ve called so many today…

ME:  [wickedly]  This is 1-800-GET-LOST.  Now, is there anything else I can help you with today?

REP:  ~click ~

My wife tells me this sort of curmudgeonly behaviour on my part is unbecoming a man of my supposed intelligence.  She tells me it’s unfair to take advantage of someone who is trying to earn an honest living.  And, somewhat reluctantly, I concede that she is, as usual, probably right.

Anyway, I’ve told her I’ll stop doing it after the next time I have to call in to a service provider for help with a problem, and I’ll stop immediately, but only on one condition—that I manage to get a real, live person on the line on my first try.

What are the chances, do you suppose?

on hold

When Did It Start?

When did it start to be okay to ignore the fundamental tenets of good manners?  Of respect for other people?  Of common sense?

As a gentleman of a certain generation, I am beginning to notice innumerable illustrations of how the teachings of my parents, for instance, are flouted, seemingly with impunity, by so many people today.

When did it start to be okay, by way of example, for men to leave their hats on while dining in a restaurant?  Or while riding in an elevator?  Or when meeting someone for the first time?


Was it not always de rigueur to doff one’s hat in such situations?

When did it start to be okay for a gentleman to remain seated when a lady enters the room?  Or when greeting someone at a social function?  Or when there is no seat left for an elderly person on a crowded subway car?

Was it not an expectation that one would respect one’s elders?

Perhaps it is cantankerous of me to bewail the apparent passing of such social niceties.  Maybe I am being overly pernickety in complaining about such faux pas.

And yet, when did it start to be okay to start eating before everyone was seated at the table, their food in front of them?  Or to prop oneself on one’s elbows, head lowered almost to the plate, to shovel food in?  Or to talk with one’s mouth full?


Was dining not intended as a social occasion where one might enjoy, not only one’s meal, but the pleasant company of one’s family and friends?

And when did it start to be okay to show up for social occasions without a proper RSVP in advance, if requested?  Or to arrive fashionably late, or embarrassingly early?  Or not to appear at all when expected?

Were politeness and punctuality ever considered superfluous, unwarranted, not of value?

I can scarcely believe I am alone in bemoaning the dumbing-down of our social discourse to the lowest common denominator.  Alas, I fear it may be so, based upon the evidence I see on an almost-daily basis.

For instance, when did it start to be okay to interrupt while someone else is speaking?  Or to speak over them?  Or to ignore them altogether, perhaps by staring pointedly at one’s cellphone?


Was polite conversation not always considered to be an amiable exchange of ideas and opinions, offered with due regard for others’ points of view?

When did it start to be okay to speak loudly in public, to the annoyance of others around?  Or to sprinkle one’s speech with profanities?  Or to play one’s music so loudly that it impinges upon others’ right to peace?

Was consideration for others not always a hallmark of a polite society?

I suppose, in fairness, I must concede that not everyone is guilty of such breaches of social refinements.  In fact, among my circle of friends and acquaintances, there is more adherence than avoidance in evidence.  But my circle is not particularly broad.

When did it start to be okay in the wider world to make demands, rather than requests?  Or to forget please and thank you?  Or to refrain from offering the plate to others before helping oneself?


Are good manners now out of style?  Is it considered better in this day and age to receive, rather than to give?

And when did it start to be okay for one to let a door close after walking through, without checking to see if someone might be following close behind?  Or to forego standing aside in the first place, holding the door open for the other person?  With a smile.

Was such consideration for others not always a hallmark of civilized behaviour?

These contraventions of the social contract that has always held us together are, in my opinion, nothing short of egregious.  They tear at the fabric of our human condition, at the ties that bind us, one to the other.  We are the lesser for their prevalence.

I have written in the past that my wife (and others, I suspect) consider me a curmudgeon.  Perchance, I am.  Yet, despite such censure, I cannot stop asking the basic question—when did it start to be okay to ignore the standards of cultured, urbane comportment?


My wife hints at the answer, however.

“When did it start to be okay?” I ask.

“When you got old!” she answers.



Such a wonderful word to roll around on your tongue.  It has a solid, satisfying sound when spoken aloud, dropping weightily into a conversation like a bag of sand thumping a wooden floor.  It is defined as somebody who is bad-tempered, disagreeable, or stubborn.

Not at all the person I believe myself to be!

Yet, according to several of those closest and dearest to me, I am becoming something of a curmudgeon.  They tell me it has to do with my rather determined efforts to hold fast to the social dicta instilled in me by my mother.


Although it’s been seventy years since first that grand lady began educating me on the social niceties—and despite my knowing that the customs and mores of our changing society have altered since then—I cannot stop bemoaning the loss of what I consider to be simple etiquette.

Let me provide a few examples, taken from experiences we had with folks in the community where we used to spend our winters.  And, I don’t mean to give you the wrong impression of them; they were all lovely people, good-hearted, gracious, and kind.  It’s just that they didn’t necessarily subscribe to the things I learned at my mother’s knee.

When my wife and I would invite a few couples for a dinner party, for instance, and specify an arrival time of five-thirty, I didn’t appreciate when everyone would arrive, fashionably late, some twenty minutes past the expected time.  We’d be sitting anxiously alone, wondering if everyone forgot—worrying that the hot hors d’oeuvres would be cooled and soggy by the time we got to eat them.

hors d'oeuvres

“Oh, we just wanted to be sure you were ready,” our guests would say when I’d make a supposedly-offhanded comment about their lateness.

But you see, we were always ready when we said we’d be.  Always.  If we’d thought we needed more preparation time, we’d have set a later arrival target for everyone.  My mother believed it was proper to arrive when your hosts asked you to.

“There’s nothing fashionable about being late,” she would say.  “It’s just rude.”

Hospitality gifts were another example.  Although they weren’t de rigueur, it became the thing to do as we visited back and forth at each other’s homes.  A favourite gift was a bottle of wine, nicely encased in a gift bag designed for the purpose—but never of the same vintage as might have been previously received from the same couple.

“Thank you,” I would say fulsomely as I pulled the bottle from the bag and set it to one side.  “We haven’t tried this one.  I’m sure we’ll enjoy it.”

“Aren’t you going to open it?” they’d ask.

“Uhh…no,” I’d reply, “not just now.  We have wine already selected for tonight.”

Their disappointment would be palpable as I proceeded to pour them a glass from the decanted wine I’d already planned for the evening.  And I was somehow made to feel as if I were offering a second-rate product, when sometimes, it was better than what they’d brought.

“How rude is that!” I’d rail at my wife after everyone had departed.  “And you know what’s even worse?  They took home the gift bag they brought their wine in!  Can you believe it?”

wine gift bag

My wife would tell me not to get so worked up, but it just didn’t seem right.

Here’s another case in point.  The day after our dinner party, some people would phone to thank us for the evening, graciously commenting on the food, the company, or the conversation among friends.  That’s exactly what my mother told me to do.

“Always call the following day to thank your hosts once again.”

But, increasing numbers of people don’t think to do that anymore.  Or perhaps they do think of it, but can’t be bothered.  Either way, it’s a classic breach of etiquette.

“Don’t worry about it,” my wife would say when I’d rail on about it.  “They thanked us several times at the door before they left.”

“It’s not the same,” I would respond, still miffed.

Now, lest you think I’m overly critical when I have no right to be, let me assure you that I tried to practice all these niceties when we were on the other side.  I’d ensure that we arrived on time, as specified by our hosts, never more than a minute out either way.

“Oh!  You’re here!” they’d say, lifting an eyebrow in surprise as they opened the door.

“Five-thirty,” I’d reply, with an exaggerated glance at my watch.  “That’s what you said, right?”

On one occasion, our hostess was still in the shower when we got there, at the appointed hour, and her husband wasn’t sure whether or not to let us in.

Of course, we always brought along a gift, usually the ubiquitous bottle of wine.  I’d proffer it unassumingly to our host, and often, to my great surprise, he’d open it immediately to pour us each a glass.  I found that mind-boggling.  It made me wonder if he didn’t have enough of his own, and was dependent on his guests for the evening’s libations.

“What if we’d brought flowers?” I’d rage later to my wife.


And, so many times, when my wife or I would phone the following day to thank our hosts again for their hospitality, they would always sound bemused.  As if we shouldn’t have bothered.  As if they didn’t care, one way or the other.

“Don’t these people know any better?” I’d rant, scarcely coherent.  “Doesn’t anybody have any manners?  Why can’t they just do things right?”

“You mean your way?” my wife would reply sweetly.

“Yeah,” I’d say forcefully.  “The way my mother used to.”

But it would fall to my wife to have the last word in these discussions, and it’s a word that would always shut me up—at least temporarily.

“Curmudgeon!” she’d say.