April 12, 2002 11:00 pm

The Spokesman-Review (Spokane):

Ugly Americans, thats what we are.

Such is revealed by Aggravating Circumstances: a Status Report on Rudeness in America. This Public Agenda study released last week found that 88 percent of people surveyed often or sometimes came across people who are rude or disrespectful.

Particularly offensive were public cellphone use, bad service in stores, obnoxious parents at kids sporting events and frustration with customer service by phone. Reckless and aggressive driving topped the list.

Seventy-three percent of the people surveyed said they believe Americans were more respectful of each other in the past.

For starters, peoples fuses have grown shorter. Perhaps the rude people live in cities where unemployment is high or where hours are lost each week stuck in traffic jams. Maybe they were sleep-deprived, overworked or worrying about health problems they cant afford to take care of. Still, those excuses dont make rudeness excusable.

One explanation may be that people are becoming more anonymous and isolated from each other.

And remember that nasty e-mail sent to a faceless Internet address is read by a human being. Theres less accountability today for the reactions we provoke, the feelings we hurt.

Past standards of proper conduct were a bit more defined than they are today.

But we also seem to have lost a fundamental element of good manners: simple respect for one another.

Prime-time TV shows and music lyrics normalizing this disrespect certainly dont help.

Perhaps we can stop the erosion by recultivating the habit of courtesy. Not so long ago kids with good manners always addressed their elders as Mr. and Mrs. They were expected to pay full attention to their teachers, and chewing gum in class was a punishable offense. Back then, foul language was the exception rather than a vocabulary staple.

The bread-and-butter note was a nice touch.

The next time you receive an invitation that says R.S.V.P., it means you are supposed to let someone know if you are coming or not.