An organisation called the Campaign for Courtesy, registered in Britain as a charity, has the objective of eradicating "excesses of anti-social behaviour which blight the life in our cities, towns and villages". The principle targets are foul language, loutish behaviour, hooliganism and a general lack of respect for people and property. Reflecting on daily instances of discourtesy that are not strictly acts of malice, I would apply a broader definition to the phrase "general lack of respect" than the campaign may have intended.
We could start with transport. It is grossly inconsiderate to insist on hogging the doorways of commuter trains or buses, when there is plenty of room to move inside and create space for others. Drivers who block "keep clear" zones, or make themselves invisible to other road-users by refusing to use lights in murky conditions, are also guilty of appalling bad manners. An airline passenger who suddenly and sharply reclines his seat might at least have looked around to ensure the gesture wouldn't splatter the remnants of lunch in a fellow-traveller's lap.
Even removed from the frustrations of travel, some people who may lead otherwise irreproachable lives are guilty of basic discourtesy. There was a good reason why an editor, earlier in my career, ruled that any reader taking the trouble to write to the newspaper had an absolute right to a reply: all too many had been ignored. The same principle should guide other forms of human exchange. A telephone message, unless frivolous or abusive, should normally be returned. An e-mail from a known sender equally merits a response.
There are limits. No one is obliged to reply to junk mail - paper or electronic - or answerphone messages from cold-calling sales staff. Often, it would be extremely unwise to respond. It does seem, however, that legitimate phone and e-mail inquiries are increasingly disregarded by the recipients. Recently, for example, I was assured there would be responses to messages left for an Anglican bishop, the public relations officer of an English council and a school governor. Each time, the reason for the call was fully explained, if not already understood, and there was no suggestion that a reply was unlikely. None came, and this was by no means an exceptional event.
Think about your own everyday life. How often have you spent an age navigating the automated switchboard of some company or public service, and been promised that someone will get straight back to you, only to have to call all over again when nothing of the sort happens? Perhaps I should ask the Campaign for Courtesy to extend its wish list to include greater consideration in ordinary communication. But it may be as elusive a goal as the aim expressed long ago by the campaign's founder, the Rev Ian Gregory, that curses should be replaced by "nice words like breadstick and cotton socks". I swear, as it were, that these were not the words I read on the lips of an irate driver in the morning traffic jam.