A teenager pulls into the handicapped space at the store and flicks her cigarette on the ground as she rushes by you. A dad in a pickup truck snags the parking space you’ve been waiting for just as its occupant backs out. The store clerk ignores you to talk on the phone while you stand there, fuming.
If you leave home today, you’ll probably deal with at least one such scenario. Even if you stay in, some telemarketer is likely to call right when dinner’s on the table and rush through his script without asking if it’s convenient for you to talk. Suddenly you no longer feel like being polite as you hang up.
Whatever happened to old-fashioned manners? In one U.S. News and World Report/Bozell poll, a whopping 89% of respondents believed that incivility is a serious problem, 91 percent said it contributes to violence, and 84% said it erodes moral values. Three out of four Americans felt that incivility was getting worse. And sometimes it looks like there’s a whole new crop of kids coming of age that have a permanent case of the rudeness virus, with a good dash of meanness thrown in.
I first noticed this when my son was in preschool. He used to come home regularly and announce things like “Grant punched me in the stomach today, and I cried.” Early on, I tried to talk to him about the golden rule. “If you’re nice to them, they’ll be nice to you,” I said. “If you share with them, they’ll share with you.” I had this conversation with him when he was just three years old. He looked at me gravely. “Mommy,” he said gently, the way the nice nurses talked to the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. “They don’t share with me when I share with them. And they’re not nice.”
Even if kids aren’t more aggressive than they used to be, it sure FEELS that way, and isn’t that just as bad? It’s like Rosie O’Donnell’s line in the movie Sleepless in Seattle. During a meeting, all of the women are hotly contesting a survey that says a woman over 40 is more likely to get shot by a terrorist than to get married. “That’s not true,” the women all insist. “That statistic is NOT TRUE.” “Maybe it’s not,” Rosie deadpanned. “But it FEELS true.”
So how do we teach our children to be civilized when all they see when they look around is evidence that the law of the jungle applies—that bigger, stronger, meaner kids get all the goodies in life? How do you teach kids to wait their turn when we’re stuck in traffic and they see car after car zooming down the shoulder, squeezing in ahead of everyone else? How do you emphasize self-control when so many adults around them routinely refuse to play by the kindergarten rules: share, wait your turn, and be nice?
You’d think that people who work in customer service would have this stuff down, but it seems the new policy is “How to Give Service With a Snarl.” People skills are apparently no longer a requirement. I walked in to get a haircut the other day and was ignored for 10 minutes by three stylists who refused to acknowledge my existence with even a “Hi—I’ll be right with you.”
People who work in the service industry, of course, have their own complaints: long hours, inefficient procedures, and impolite customers, whose behavior they may use to justify their own nastiness. But as someone who was taught to always be polite, I am astounded by the behavior that I see. Then again, I’m the kind of person who bumps into a mannequin and says “excuse me.”
Remember the “Practice random acts of kindness” movement that swept the country a few years ago? Maybe it’s time for a revival. Try holding the door for the person walking in the drugstore behind you, or offer to help that irritated mom struggling to carry a stroller down the stairs at the airport. You may inspire someone else to act a little better, too. At the very least, you’ll be part of the solution, not the problem.