TODAY   |  November 03, 2010

What happened to ‘please,’ ‘thank you’?

Has society let these three simple words of civility and gentility slip away? The Rev. Sherri Hausser and Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz discuss why softening commands and acknowledging gestures are so important in our daily interactions.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

MATT LAUER, co-host: We're back now at 8:35. This morning on our special series IS CIVILITY DEAD ?, please and thank you. Just when you thought common courtesy was dead, there may be a little hope out there. NBC 's Miguel Almaguer has the low down on those magic words .

MIGUEL ALMAGUER reporting: There used to be a time when simply being polite was a way of life .

ALMAGUER: Common courtesy was just that, common.

ALMAGUER: But if art imitates life...

ALMAGUER:'d think times have changed.

ALMAGUER: It seems decorum is doomed.

Ms. DARYL TWERDAHL: One of the biggest things about manners and good etiquette is really trying to make everybody around you feel comfortable.

ALMAGUER: Daryl Twerdahl has been an etiquette and protocol consultant for over a decade. She says good manners is good human interaction. The problem is...

Ms. TWERDAHL: We're all perceived to be very, very busy and people's perception is that it takes more time to be polite than it does to just rush through something and be impolite.

ALMAGUER: In today's fast-paced, high-stress world, it seems like so many of us forget the simple things , just being polite. Can I have a large latte, please?

Unidentified Woman #1: Yes.

ALMAGUER: Are we really too busy, too important or just too inconsiderate to say please and thank you? To find out, we headed to this Los Angeles coffee shop. After two hours and 27 customers, not a single person, not one, failed to say thank you. A few said please, but they were all thankful.

Mr. JUDSON McKINNEY (Customer): You want to just acknowledge, you know, what they did for you. You know, you don't want to walk around entitled.

Mr. MICHAEL GLADIS (Customer): I was raised to say please and thank you. It's about that simple, I think.

ALMAGUER: Etiquette experts will tell you good manners do come from mom and dad and they're re-enforced by society, but what happened here doesn't happen everywhere. Being a barista can be a thankless job...

Woman #1: There you go.

Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you.

Woman #1: You're welcome.

ALMAGUER: ...but not on this day. For TODAY, Miguel Almaguer, NBC News, Los Angeles .

LAUER: So how do you make please and thank you even more common in everyday life ? Reverend Sherri Hausser and Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz are here to help us back to the basics. Folks, nice to see you both.

Reverend SHERRI HAUSSER (Associate Pastor, Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church): Nice to see you.

Rabbi MATTHEW GEWIRTZ: Nice to see you.

LAUER: When I was a kid , this wasn't an option. I mean, you know, my parents drilled this into me and it was not a good thing if I forgot please and thank you. Parents -- again, that was an exception in that case.

Rev. HAUSSER: Yeah.

LAUER: But in our everyday lives, we see people forgetting it all the time. Have parents gotten more lax?

Rabbi GEWIRTZ: I think parents have become more lax. I taught a confirmation class the other day and I brought this subject up and they said not only has that gone by the wayside, but they even hear their parents saying I love you less than they used to and their kids are noticing this. I've been thinking that things have become so perfectly wrapped in this day and age , so perfectly serviced, so perfectly timed, that we start to expect it our way, we become entitled, instead of appreciative.

LAUER: The words I think are used by some people, Sherri , to just get what they want.

Rev. HAUSSER: Yes.

LAUER: You say please, people tend to give you what you want, but they're really a window on your personality, aren't they?

Rev. HAUSSER: Absolutely. And they represent different values. The reason why they're not extraneous words is please and thank you say something about what we value in the world. For example, if I'm a person who says please, I'm acknowledging that not everything in the world belongs to me, that I exist because other people are connected to me and I'm connected to them. Same with thank you, we're affirming that what we have and who we are comes through our relationship with other people. So it's an affirmation of connection and relationship and a carrier of important values.

LAUER: And even though they're little words, it's part of the drip, drip, drip of the loss of civility in general.

Rabbi GEWIRTZ: Well, gratitude, I think, proportionately and directly relates to humility, which I think is a lost value in society. The opposite is arrogance, is entitlement, is incivility, and there's this great ancient text that says that when you are full of incivility and full of anger, the prophet could no longer prophesize, the sage is no longer wise, the teacher can no longer teach.

LAUER: Yeah. We -- the whole series, the point of the series is to talk about the lack of civility in our lives.

Rev. HAUSSER: Mm-hmm.

LAUER: So where can people turn to find a little civility? You can't buy it at the store.

Rev. HAUSSER: Mm-hmm.

LAUER: You know, is it found in spirituality, in religion? Where else would you suggest people turn?

Rev. HAUSSER: I think one place you can find it is in spirituality and religion, partially because those are places where communities gather. It's also places where we think that it's important to take time to be very present in the moment, to be aware of other people, to affirm the humanity of people. You can also find it in poetry, in writing. We know that words have incredible power to build up or to tear down, so spending time with those words.

LAUER: Yeah. That's -- it would be hard to imagine someone go out -- going out and reading beautiful poetry and then walking on the street and being rude to someone.

Rev. HAUSSER: Yes.

LAUER: You know, those two things don't go together.

Rev. HAUSSER: That's right .

Rabbi GEWIRTZ: And it's also what we model for our children. I think it's important when you're with your child to say, ' Hi , this is Mr. Lauer , shake his hand, look him in the eye.' Also, how about the lost art of the thank you note?

LAUER: Yeah.

Rabbi GEWIRTZ: Of actually taking out a piece of stationery, writing a letter, sealing it, stamping it, putting it in a mailbox. And remembering we're all not perfect, between perfection and imperfection is gratitude and appreciation.

LAUER: Matthew Gewirtz and Reverend Sherri Hausser , thank you for being here today.

Rev. HAUSSER: Thank you.

LAUER: We appreciate it. Thanks for being part of our series. We hope to see you soon.