"Staff who use this cubicle have voluntarily agreed not to smoke whilst occupying it and kindly ask that visitors do likewise."
This wall sign in a conference room at the British Broadcasting Corp. can be savored by the American visitor as an example of British decorum. It led me to keep an appreciative eye out for signs like it in London. For it spoke volumes about the importance the Brits still ascribe to tact and manners as the way a society must be sustained. By contrast, it also said something about the chipping away of our American standards of public discourse.The British fret that manners are slipping. They especially worry about maintaining some sort of comity in the media and have an elaborate self-regulation system in effect in both print and broadcasting, short of censorship, to try to head off erosion of standards.
But if one of their most visible media, the public sign, is any indication, they have a lot less to worry about than we do.
- YOU RARELY SEE a sign in Britain that barks, "No smoking." You are much more likely to see one that urges instead, "Please refrain from smoking," or even more gently, "Will customers please note that this is a non-smoking store." You won't see a sign that demands, "No strollers," but rather a suggestion, "Please do not park your prams in the entry," followed by a softening explanation, perhaps needless but nonetheless considerate, "because others must use the walkway."
At McDonald's signs urge, "Please dispose of your packaging thoughtfully," suggesting thoughtfulness is the key to how to get along with others. More abrupt is the sign outside a library, "All bicycles chained to these railings will be removed," but it is followed by a "thank you."
In fact, the "please" and "thank you" are evident in the most unlikely spots, as in a road sign, "Long vehicles please avoid Momout Street. Thank you." So are apologies, as on this sidewalk scaffold, "Bons Lelliot apologise for any inconvenience caused during the progress of these works." And so are indications that you can complain and get a sympathetic ear: "The contractor on this site is a member of the Westminster City Council Considerate Builders Scheme and is committed to a code of good practice. If you have any comments please ring the building site's hotline."
- COMPARE THAT with the commands in the typical American store sign: "No shoes, no shirt, no service," "Two forms of I.D. required," "Break it and you pay for it," and of course, the blunt "Tow-Away Zone" or, haughty, "Don't even think about parking here."
In Britain virtually the only abrupt commands on signs are those that simply must be urgently insistent, "Mind the gap" at the underground stop, or "Look right, look left" painted on the pavement at street corners.
We have a lot to learn from the civilized British about respectful public communication.
OUR MEDIA HAVE BEGUN to examine what they see as a precipitous decline in American manners. In its April 22 issue U.S. News & World Report shouts "In Your Face" on its cover over a picture of three grimacing, distinctly repulsive and obviously unapproachable people. It asks, "Whatever happened to good manners?"
While I distrust most newsmagazine roundups that reach cosmic conclusions on social trends, I'm in sync with this one. The article says crude and obnoxious behavior has replaced good manners "and that hurts our politics and culture." It cites a poll that found nine of 10 Americans find incivility a serious problem and half believe it is extremely serious.
One of the major problems is of course foul language. John Leo says so in an essay, "Foul Words, Foul Culture," accompanying the magazine piece. And Clyde Haberman in a New York Times commentary on April 23 complains about the vulgarization of New York City, which is "awash in people who, if a mere five or six choice words were excised from their vocabulary, would effectively be struck dumb," and asks, "Whatever happened to decency?"
When readers complain, they sometimes get short shrift. The new reader advocate at the Salt Lake Tribune, Shinika Sykes, took note a couple of weeks ago of objections to two gamey and borderline obscene expressions used by a sports columnist, Gordon Monson. She excused him because "he is the Tribune's Dennis Rodman of sports columnists," though she concluded that the words "distracted from an otherwise interesting column." His own response was flippant and unrepentant.
One thing that has happened to decency is a media culture that constantly pushes the envelope on what is acceptable in human relations, glorifies the once unacceptable, runs roughshod over privacy, foists on us hate radio and kookie TV talk shows and gives young folks the example of "Beavis and Butt-head."
Newspaper endorsement of political candidates, once considered a press obligation, is becoming increasingly rare. The Deseret News has not, for example, endorsed a candidate since it backed Alfred M. Landon for the presidency in the 1936 Republican debacle. The News has a unique limitation, ownership by the LDS Church, which does not endorse candidates. But most papers figure that endorsements simply confuse readers who don't see the distinction between the editorials and news columns and therefore believe that an endorsement implies slanted coverage of the campaign.
The University of Utah's student Daily Chronicle has no such inhibitions. Its editorial board came in last week's student body elections foursquare behind the Get Real Party, and in a reasoned editorial explained why. It said the endorsement wasn't easy and admitted the staff was frequently not impressed with the candidates.
The student editors also acted only after they had an opportunity to question candidates in debates, a tactic often used by the editorial staffs of big papers that do endorse. The session, the paper said, "yielded sweaty foreheads and plenty of promises" from the candidates.
The Get Real Party won over the Run with the Dogs slate with 55 percent of the votes. How much the endorsement contributed is impossible to say, but the Run campaign workers had the perception that the Chrony, by endorsing the other party, also was biased toward it.
Writers vs. athletes
The battle between sports figures and sports writers (Media Monitor, March 11) goes on.
- The U.S. Figure Skating Association has banned a veteran sports writer, Christine Brennan, because of her opinions, apparently those in her book "Inside Edge," which deals with such issues as homosexuality and pushy parents. Other Washington Post writers will still get credentials to cover events. Meanwhile, the Post has appealed.
- The newest personal adviser for athletes is the media coach. One, a former sports anchor, Andrea Kirby of Atlanta, has counseled major sports figures like Darryl Strawberry and John Daly on their image problems. Last week she was at the side of Lawrence Phillips, the running back and first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Rams, when he faced the cameras to explain his attack on a former girlfriend (which got him a year on court probation) and to put a spin on what he said.