Ask Amy: What Happened To Civility?

TV has captured several recent celebrity outbursts. Rapper Kanye West ruined Taylor Swift's big moment at the MTV video music awards. Tennis star Serena Williams cursed at a line judge. The Chicago Tribune's Amy Dickinson talks about whether we are seeing the end of civility.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

It was not a great week for three high-profiled Ws: Congressman Joe Wilson, reprimanded for shouting at the president of the United States, tennis star Serena Williams, penalized and fined for her meltdown at the U.S. Open, and rapper Kanye West who upstaged singer Taylor Swift when she won a Video Music Award from MTV.

(Soundbite of TV program, "2009 MTV Video Music Awards")

Ms. TAYLOR SWIFT (Singer): Thank you so much. I always dreamed about what it would be like to maybe win one of these someday, but I never actually thought that it would happen. I sing country music, so thank you so much for giving me a chance to win a VMA award. I…

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. KANYE WEST (Rapper): Yo, Taylor. I'm really happy for you. I'm going to let you finish. But Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.

(Soundbite of cheering and booing)

Mr. WEST: One of the best videos of all time.

CONAN: All three were accused of bad behavior, all three apologized -kind of. Two issued amended apologies, and yet all three incidents continue to simmer, maybe because the apologies themselves might have been missing something.

If there's been an uncivil eruption in your life, what worked to resolve it? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is our own Amy Dickinson. She writes the syndicated Ask Amy column for the Chicago Tribune and joins us today from Chicago Public Radio. Amy, hiya.

Ms. AMY DICKINSON (Columnist, The Chicago Tribune): Hi, Neal. Now, I want to let you in on a debate that's been simmering in my column this past week. Is or is not the world going to hell in a hand basket? Yes or no?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, I think yes. I think yes, but it's a slow journey, Amy.

Ms. DICKINSON: I agree. And actually, I had a different response to these three things than a lot of people did. I really do see each of these incidents as, you know, individual incidents. And I became more interested in the aftermath, which is where I think it presents those of us who have, you know, families, kids, parents, siblings. This presents us with an opportunity to think about when things get out of control, when we are out of control or when somebody else is out of control, what happens next?

CONAN: And yeah. Few of us are going to have the option of appearing at the United States Open, much less berating an official there or yelling at the president of the United States. It's more often Uncle Willy(ph) or the guy down the street.

Ms. DICKINSON: Exactly. And when, you know, I think anybody who lives in a family has probably frequent moments where they do something they regret or somebody else does something that they don't think is right, and then what? You know, what happens after you blow your stack or after somebody else loses their temper and behaves poorly? What happens then?

CONAN: Or realize that you've created a situation that might require an apology, and I wonder if you've gotten emails on that?

Ms. DICKINSON: Oh, absolutely. I recently - I actually, just this morning, got an email from a woman who, you know, this kind of combines themes that are going on right now on this country. She had racked up a lot of debts and she had stiffed her children's day care center. And she loved this place and she had to pull her kids out. They could not pay their bill, and the head of the day care center ended up having to hire a collection agency. And the woman now was happy to say that they had cleared the debt completely, but now she felt terrible. And her question to me was, should I apologize? And my answer is if you're ever in a situation where you wonder whether you should apologize, then the answer is yes. Go for it.

CONAN: And as we've learned from the examples of some of these high-profile incidents - both Serena Williams and Kanye West had to come back with amended apologies - that maybe there are some elements of an apology you might want to consider.

Ms. DICKINSON: Yes. Okay. There are apologies and then there are, sort of, lawyer-processed statements of contrition.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: And I think as we've seen for both Kanye West and Serena Williams - Serena, especially, her first statement was more an admission of some - she admitted that she was in the stadium at the time, you know?

CONAN: It was me.

Ms. DICKINSON: It was I. Yes, in fact, I was that person.

CONAN: Who received the bad call from the lineswoman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Right, who received the bad call. And that, obviously, was not enough. But what I liked was the following day, rather than call out the professional clean-up crew, the PR people, the lawyers, whatnot, the following day, she issued what sounded to me like a very personal, complete statement of, you know, contrition. And she took responsibility for her actions, and she also apologized sincerely.

There's another element to - I think, a proper apology also needs to follow with a question, will you forgive me, which is something a lot of us don't feel comfortable doing. But I think it's really necessary.

CONAN: Hard enough to say, I'm wrong. But you think it needs that further emphasis, will you forgive me.

Ms. DICKINSON: Will you forgive me? And I see this - I often advise people in my column to end a statement with a question, because then you're sort of - using the Serena Williams analogy. You're tossing the ball back over the net and you're asking, will you? And they need to answer. And if they can't answer, they'll think about it, because you've asked them to do something.

CONAN: Hmm. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We're wondering if there have been uncivil moments in your life, moments that require apologies and how they may have been resolved. Let's start with Tara(ph), Tara with us from Westborough in Massachusetts.

TARA (Caller): Yes, hi. I had a moment where I behaved abysmally badly, and I was at a family restaurant. We were on a road trip with my two children. And I went into the ladies' room. A woman was in there washing the hands of her two little daughters. And there had been sprinkle all over the toilet seats. Need I say more.

Okay. So I turned and I said, lady, do you mind wiping up after yourself if your kids, your toddlers are going to sprinkle. And she said, I didn't do it. She got all mad and we had words. And then she went out. And she was sitting at the table with her husband. I came out with a pit in my stomach and my two daughters upset. And we sat down at our table. And I looked to my husband, I looked at that family, and I got up and I walked over and I said, may I speak with you, please?

She said, what? I said, I behaved horribly. I was wrong. I was rude. I'd like to apologize to you. And if you'll allow me to address your daughters, I would like to apologize to them for my bad behavior. I certainly did not model behavior for my children or yours. And I ask that you please accept my apology.

And the woman's body was relaxed all of a sudden. She smiled and she said, I'm very happy to accept your apology. Girls? And the girls kind of nodded. And I said, thank you, I appreciate it. And I walked away. I had a good dinner. Their table was laughing. It was cathartic for both of us because I didn't make excuses for being tired and having been on the road. I didn't - anything. I took full responsibility for my bad behavior. And she was grateful. You can't unring a bell, but you can certainly make it a lot better.

CONAN: And - well, the quicker the better, but, yes, that seems, Amy, just right along the lines you're talking about.

Ms. DICKINSON: Wow. You know what I love about this, is talk about modeling wonderful behavior for all of the children involved and the adults, because I, think, often, adults - you sort of apologize in your head or you'll shoot somebody a smile, a little like, oh, I'm sorry. What you did was just exemplary, honestly. And I think that we got to learn…

TARA: It was a rare moment for me, I have to say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Yeah.

TARA: It really was an amazing transformation of both families.

CONAN: Well, that's the goal here is to - well, as you say, you can't unring the bell, but at least you have - seemed to have calmed down the reverberations from it. And…

TARA: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Tara, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

Ms. DICKINSON: And you know what else was great about Tara was that she also, as she said, didn't offer any excuses. She didn't bother. You know, sometimes, people, like, oh, I'm tired, and you think to yourself, don't bother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Just - and that's - I think that's very important. She didn't bother with all the excuses and she went straight to - she got to business. That was great.

CONAN: Let's talk with Jane(ph). Jane calling from Milwaukee.

JANE (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. I'm just calling about the elements of an apology. It's something I actually wrote a paper on in law school. But I think one of the elements should be not using the passive voice. In other words, I'm sorry for what happened, as opposed to I'm sorry for what I did. There's a big difference in sincerity there.

CONAN: Oh, I think the classic example now used in politics, in sports and elsewhere is I'm sorry if anyone was offended.

JANE: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JANE: Sort of leaves a little to be desired in the sincerity department.

CONAN: It leaves a little open to interpretation.

JANE: Definitely.

Ms. DICKINSON: And here's another thing that people do that I think is really quite inadequate, is they will say, I can tell you're upset. You know, that - okay, it's a start. But I think if you're going to really clean up after yourself and apologize, you need to - and, you know, if you don't think you're at fault, that's a conversation you should have. But the whole, I'm sorry that you're upset, no, not so much.

CONAN: Hmm.

JANE: Right. Right. I think you need to own the behavior in order to make an effective apology.

CONAN: And, Jane, I'm curious. You wrote this paper in law school?

JANE: In the context of sports law, where athletes get out of hand or, you know, beat somebody up in a hockey game and really knock him out, their apologies, as we discussed, sort of lawyer-generated statements of contrition, that sort of thing. They really lack that element of responsibility.

CONAN: It seems to be a growth sector of the industry.

JANE: Definitely.

CONAN: Yeah. All right, thanks very much.

JANE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And it does seem, Amy, as if a lot of the time, these celebrities issue these half-baked apologies and seemingly get away with it.

Ms. DICKINSON: Right. And Serena Williams, you know, I actually don't -I think that what she did was awful, but I seem to remember Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connor, it just seems like these things happen.

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: I think it's important that - I don't think we should really pull her through the ringer necessarily, but allow her to demonstrate, you know, she's been fined. I think, you know, she needs to be allowed to demonstrate that she's a great athlete and go out there and do her job. That's what she does.

CONAN: Interesting column by Bill Rhode - in the New York Times suggesting that maybe we're a little sexist and because again, Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors and famously John McEnroe all did this and there was an element of gee, willikers(ph), what fierce competitors they all are.

Ms. DICKINSON: Exactly. No. I thought the response to this was quite honestly - between us, Neal - I thought it was pretty sexist. I did.

CONAN: Hmm. That was Bill Rhoden of the New York Times, excuse me. Anyway, we're talking with "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson about the recent bout of incivility and the lost art of the apology.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an e-mail we have from Lynn(ph) in Bishop, California. Any suggestions for what to do about a close family member who refuses to use a common forms of politeness, please, thank you, excuse me, I'm sorry, et cetera, low key requests have no effect.

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, this person doesn't say how old this family member is. But I think if somebody does something persistently that is, you know, creating a problem, you take - what I like is, I like the one on one meeting over coffee, outside the home. You go somewhere outside the home and you say, listen, I want to talk to you about this. I'm wondering, you know, what's that about, this is how it makes me feel when you do this. I feel quite unappreciated. I also feel it reflects poorly on you, you know?

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. DICKINSON: And you have to talk about it.

CONAN: Let's get Will(ph) on the line. Will from West Point in Georgia.

WILL (Caller): Yes. Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

WILL: I work for a industrial technology company and I'm one of the middle managers. My conflict was with one of our directors of technology, really. And it was a situation where we are from different cultures. I am an African-American. He is an Indian-American. And my actions on a certain deal that we were working, to him, imposed upon his authority, although the corporate rules were followed and our division did everything we were supposed to do.

He felt threatened and basically cut-off the conversations, period. And we needed them desperately for the job. So, what we did, we extended the olive branch. I personally apologized, went to a much higher level, got their support and apologized again. The individual refused to move. But as time went on, what happened was members of his group, not him as an individual, but members of his group said, hey, look, you know, you really need to make nice here. You guys have come to us, you've tried to fix the scenario.

And my point here is that even after you offer the olive branch and you ask point blank, will you forgive me, is there something else that I could do, the individual may still say no. But if it's a part of a group, the group may put enough emphasis on the deal to say, look, we all need to try to work this out.

CONAN: Let's get past it. What do you think, Amy?

Ms. DICKINSON: Well, this happens in families, too. And there's a whole school of, you know, psychological study devoted to the uses of peer pressure. And this is a perfect example of this. This is a case where, in order to do business, the group had to exert pressure in order to try and make a situation better. And I like the way - first of all, I love the way you handled it. And I like the way they handled it. And you have to, at some point, also agree to move on.

CONAN: Hmm. Well, thanks very much. Is it resolved?

WILL: It is resolved. We actually won the deal and it is resolved. Unfortunately, the individual passed away, so…

CONAN: Well…

WILL: …that's the unfortunate part, yeah.

CONAN: I'm sorry to hear that.

WILL: Yeah.

CONAN: But thanks very much for the phone call.

WILL: Thank you.

CONAN: And I just wonder, Amy, we just have about a minute left, but do you see - you talked about - seeing these as three individual incidents, they all happened to come bing, bing, bing. But nevertheless, do you fear for the future?

Ms. DICKINSON: Not a bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DICKINSON: Not a bit. In fact, I think that these - honestly, I don't want to be Pollyanna, but I think that these present opportunities for people to talk the way we are. And to hear the kinds of stories that people have called in with today, I feel it's incredibly valuable. Because what I see in my work is that people are trying really, really hard to live peacefully. And they don't always know how to do that, but that's the goal.

CONAN: Amy, thanks very much.

Ms. DICKINSON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Amy Dickinson writes the syndicated column, "Ask Amy" for the Chicago Tribune. Her new book is "The Mighty Queens of Freeville." And she joined us today from the studios at Chicago Public Radio.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION Science Friday. Ira Flatow talks about the new dinosaur find and how it's overturning what scientists thought about T. rex evolution.

Plus, germs in your showerhead. Have a great weekend, everybody. We'll see you next Monday. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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