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The war against rudeness

By Malcolm King - posted Thursday, 25 August 2011

In the first scene of Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Clementis, a former Czechoslovakia communist leader's image was airbrushed out of a photograph by the government. He was charged with treason and made ‘invisible’.

And that’s exactly what people who don’t return telephone calls or reply to emails want. They want to make you invisible.

This story is about respect or a lack of it in business communication. To tell the story properly I need to eliminate some contexts where a person may rightly not wish to return a call or reply.

  1. She/he has no romantic interest you

  2. They are dead or on holiday

  3. They have contracted a mental illness

You have an enquiry. You want to pass on some information. You are interested in getting a job. You have a bill to pay. That sort of thing.

And all you get is silence. Wait 48 hours, that’s what my old journalism lecturer used to say. If they don’t return your call, hunt them down (her words) and ask them what they have to hide. If they say ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t get your message,” then use that as a direct quote in the story.

What do they have to hide? That’s my first reaction. Sinister, isn’t it? Why do I think a person is concealing something from me when they fail to return my call or email after 48 hours when I know they are at work? Their silence is a one-finger salute raised behind my back.

It says, this guy has nothing to offer me. It says, I’m a very important person, she can wait. It says, I’ll put this customer on hold until next Monday as I have some serious Facebooking to do. I’ll get back to her when I get back from my holidays or maybe it says ‘oh no, he’s on to me!’ More likely it says, I don’t respect you or your communication, so disappear like Clementis.

Normally Ruth Ostrow‘s opinion articles from The Australian read like she has soaked too long in a Byron Bay spa but her piece ‘Uncommon Courtesy’ (6 August 2011) displayed wisdom beyond that of her spirit totems.


“You send another email, perhaps a text, or voicemail. And as time passes, so does your self-esteem. There’s nothing quite as diminishing as being ignored, or made to feel invisible,” says Ms Ostrow. Spot on.

Rudeness and disrespect is now so acceptable because electronic media allows us to avoid the avoidable. As messages pour in, sometimes hundreds a day for busy people, we bury them in our inboxes, where they stay ‘un-actioned’ to use a weasel word.

This calls in to question the ontology of emails. For some serial offenders we need to ask the question - are emails really real? They are so easy to delete. “I’m sorry, I never got your email.” In a world of disembodied communication, of Facebook and Twitter, it is so easy to forget that digital communiqués were written by people.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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