It’s a familiar scene: You take your seat in a theater. The
room quiets as the flickering light from the projector pierces the darkness.
And just as the film is set to begin, the inevitable happens: You hear the grating,
stabbing resonance of a cell phone.
But it doesn’t end there. Rather than turn the phone off or leave
the theater, the owner assaults your patience further by shamelessly carrying
on the conversation while remaining seated.
MasterCard should tackle the rudeness epidemic in its next commercial:
Movie ticket: $8.50. Popcorn and soft drink: $8. Going two hours without being
offended by incivility: Priceless...and highly unlikely.
The Lost Art of Civility
There was a time when good manners were commonplace. Young
adults answered with the customary “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir,” gentlemen tipped
their hats and neighbors banded together to welcome new families.
We were gracious in conduct and courteous in demeanor, contributing
a thread of gentility to our societal tapestry. Sadly, I had to watch old episodes
of Leave It to Beaver to come across manners like that. Welcome to 2002.
We are different today—an era of fast cars, fast food, fast computers
and dwindling tolerance. Civility seems doomed to extinction. It should have
its own glass case alongside Archie Bunker’s chair in the Smithsonian National
Museum of American History.
Many Americans agree. A telephone survey this past January by Public
Agenda, a New York-based research group, reports that 79 percent of the 2,013
questioned believe our country’s rudeness is a problem.
We have become a society where blatant disrespect is everyday:
a surly bunch of unchaperoned schoolchildren with full reign
of the classroom.
Take our behavior behind the wheel, for example. Remember the days
when a car ride was a pleasant event? Neither do I. Our daily commute can be
as treacherous as the Indianapolis 500.
And God help us if traffic is at a standstill. The language floating
around the deadlocked cars should be rated by the Motion Picture Association
of America. It’s fouler than the fumes in the air.
Rudeness Has Many Faces
Deborah Wadsworth, president of Public Agenda, believes that
rudeness goes far beyond dinner etiquette. “Lack of manners for Americans is
not whether you confuse the salad fork for the dinner fork. It’s about the daily
assault of selfishness—inconsiderate behavior that gets under their skin on
highways, in the office, on TV, in stores.”
Others believe we should not only embrace our rudeness, but develop
it. Jessica Reaves, a columnist for TIME.com, challenges
us to rip open proudly the doors of our caged insolence.
“Rudeness is something Americans have taken far too long to master.
It’s one thing to be pleasant, even friendly, to people we actually know and
care about, but what about the folks who don’t deserve anything less than a
quick kick in the shin?”
Ouch. I guess it’s time to dust off the old shin guards.
But rowdy cell phones and loose profanity are just the tip of the
iceberg. Incivility has been known to take on a darker, more sinister shape:
that of bigotry and intolerance. We are a nation of equals, yet many of us are
hindered by prejudice.
Unfounded suspicions many in this country have toward Muslims are
worth examining, if only briefly. For many people, the terrorist attacks on
September 11 deepened a very real bias against the Muslim community.
Case in point: While shopping only days after the attacks, I watched
from afar as a Muslim woman approached two different people, asking for the
time. But neither gave her the time of day, unapologetically walking away.
Granted, wounds were fresh, but common sense was lacking. She was
no more a terrorist than you or I. Few Muslims are. Respect should be boundless.
Ethnic incivility is only one piece of the puzzle. Rudeness can
be found in high schools where fierce competitiveness dominates the popularity
game and in the workplace where the “kill or be killed” philosophy, once the
underbelly of ambition, is now the standard.
Insolence is like a cancer. But unlike the actual disease, it has
Try a Little Patience
I often wonder how Christ would combat rudeness. How would
he handle infuriated drivers, maddening beepers or the taunts of his peers?
I think he’d manage it all with a good deal of patience, a path
we all should take. There is simply no place in a just society for bigotry,
nor is there an excuse for road rage on our highways or insolence in our department
We should think twice before tailgating the car in front of us or
employing profanity whenever the mood hits. Let’s shut off our cell phones and
pagers during Mass and make a concerted effort to be kind to those around us.
Simply put, it is a question of sides. Those who favor a well-mannered
society will make an effort to stifle their rudeness. Those of a more apathetic
temperament will allow these ills of our society to fester. They are the conspirators
in the quickening demise of civility and respect.
But each generation holds new promise. If children learn by example,
take advantage of it. Show them that rudeness and incivility have no place in
our homes, our workplaces or our society. Teach them that respect for others
will mean the death of rudeness.
It is a timeless lesson. C.H.