10/18/2010 07:32 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Decline of Common Courtesy

The managing editor at the newspaper where I worked about 25 years ago called me into his office one day. He was a man who had a special way with words, and with a withering look of supreme dissatisfaction, told me:

"Denny, I'm tired of dropping rocks down the well, and never hearing a splash."

He was referring to story ideas he had been sending into the newsroom. He expected them to be assigned, written and published, but many of his contributions -- I hesitate to minimize them by calling them tips -- weren't showing up in the newspaper.

I recalled his comment often as I worked on my latest book, Eddie Robinson: ...He Was the Martin Luther King of Football. And I continue to think of it as I try to communicate with strangers for various reasons now.

There's an old axiom in the newspaper business, a warning that the reading public could care less what kind of obstacles and difficulties journalists face in doing their jobs. Every job has its frustrations, the saying goes, so don't expect any sympathy, or even much interest.

But this issue goes way beyond me. All of the job-seekers in the audience have encountered the same treatment. So I offer my experience only as a first-hand example.

In piecing together the life of Eddie Robinson, I received wonderful cooperation from many people, who trusted a complete stranger and openly shared their recollections and impressions from one of the most pivotal times in America's history. At the same time, though, I am flat-out shocked by the number of people -- many of them holding prominent corporate positions, representing public institutions or employed in service-oriented endeavors -- who ignored emails, letters and telephone messages.

I've come to call this version of the "no splash" phenomenon "The Decline of Common Courtesy." In this age of instant communication, I ask:

How hard is it to reply to an email, phone call or letter?

How hard is it to write a response as simple as: "I received your inquiry. I do not wish to be interviewed." Or, "I got your message. I don't want to be bothered." Or, "Thanks, but no thanks." Or whatever!

Employers and their representatives will say they are swamped with applicants, and they'd need to hire extra staff just to respond with a courteous "No" to all of the unsolicited inquiries they receive. To that, I say: Even a form "splash" is better than no "splash" at all.

I'm not going to publicly embarrass the businessmen, educators, athletes, clergy and others -- many of them well-known -- who haven't bothered to acknowledge, in any way, my repeated efforts to reach them. What would that accomplish?

But I do believe a particular exception to this rule is instructive, and thus worth sharing.

I sent an email to one of the more prominent figures in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s as I researched Eddie Robinson's life and career. I had been told that this leader had visited the Grambling campus in northern Louisiana as a young man, and I couldn't imagine him doing so without meeting the famous Eddie Robinson.

I wrote that I would like to interview the man about his experiences with, and view of, Coach Robinson.

I was thrilled to receive a prompt reply, and encouraged by his courteous tone. But I was disappointed, ultimately, by his answer.

Thanks for your message.

Sadly, I must decline.

I am one of the most sports-averse persons I know -- I do not follow any professional or amateur sports.

Of course I knew of Coach Robinson but nothing beyond what a casual, non-sports page reader would know.

I replied immediately that it didn't matter if he was a sports fan. I wanted to know what civil rights leaders such as he thought about Eddie Robinson's approach to the Movement. When he assured me he would be of no help, I tried once more -- as any good reporter would. Again he declined, acknowledging that he had spoken at Grambling but telling me that he had no recollection of meeting Coach Robinson. The campus speeches all ran together, he said. There were so many of them.

I admit that I was frustrated by his unwillingness to allow me to chat with him. I was sure he would have told me something that I would have found very useful, even if he didn't consider it significant. But I thanked him, and stopped pressing for him to give in.

It wasn't until months later, after my biography of the legendary Grambling football coach was published, that I appreciated the contrast between this experience and the countless instances when my polite requests were totally and rudely ignored.

At least he took the time to graciously decline. And he remained courteous, though unbowed, in the face of my persistence.

In this age when too few rocks make a splash in the well, a lot of Americans can learn a valuable lesson from this example.

Whether it's someone looking for a job or someone trying to do their job, they deserve a "splash." That guy or gal or kid who rings the doorbell, trying to sell replacement windows, house siding or the latest discount coupon book, or even that telephone solicitor who is invading an otherwise tranquil evening at home "to ask a few questions," all deserve a moment to try to do some honest work. And if no other courtesy, at least a polite "No, thank you."

Emails, letters and phone messages at least deserve a response, even if the answer is not what the sender or caller would like it to be.

"Thanks very much for getting back to me," I replied to someone who did answer my email recently, adding: "You'd be surprised how often people don't take the time to respond."

"Communication is important to me," the man responded, "and the fact that you were thoughtful enough to write will always get a response from me."