73% of Participants Consider Rude Behavior “Not Unusual”; Up from 61% in 2012.
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Why Are We So Rude?
“I couldn’t resist. You understand. I just couldn’t help myself.” That’s how one woman explained her rudeness as she closed a door in my face just for fun.
Actually, I didn’t understand, any more than some of my clients this week understood why someone had done something rude to them — with bigger stakes for sure than the silliness that happened to me.
So, what’s going on? Why are we so rude? Why is it getting worse? And what, if anything, is there for any of us to do about it?
Let’s start with what we mean when we say “rude.”
A number of dictionaries link rudeness and civility, so what is civility?
From The Institute for Civility: “Civility is claiming and caring for one’s identity, needs, and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”
I like this one. In fact, one of the highest compliments I ever received was from a travel companion who said, “I love how you take care of yourself and the other person too.” Happily, for us both, that went in both directions.
Or as workplace civility expert, Dr. Giovinella Gonthier, put it, “Civility is being mindful of the dignity of the human being in your sphere at all times.”
Dr. Gonthier talks about civility less as a specific behavior than as a way of life that begins within and emanates out. Still, she gives behavioral examples that include:
- Not returning phone calls
- Shunning in the hallway
- No showing for appointments
I bought Dr. Gonthier’s book years ago and kept it while donating many of its neighbors on my home office bookshelves. So, I have been intensely interested in the subject for a long time.
And so have a lot of other people dating really far back.
History of Rudeness
The oldest book in the world is said by some to date back to the late 25th century BC in Egypt. The Pharaoh’s advisor wrote The Teachings of Ptahhatp to address the rudeness of Egyptian life.
There are other early guidelines for conduct, such as The Ten Commandments, Plato’s Republic, George Washington’s Rules of Civility, The Little Golden Books, and our kindergarten teachers.
Here are just a couple from George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility (don’t miss the second one!):
Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.
When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered.
Healthy societies, organizations, teams, families, marriages, and friendships require that people conduct themselves toward other people in an ethical and respectful manner. Or should.
People have been talking about this forever and we still haven’t gotten it right. In fact, studies suggest that our culture’s lack of civility continues to grow.
Current State of Our Rudeness
David Brooks put it in a nutshell in his recent Atlantic article, “How America Got Mean”:
I was recently talking with a restaurant owner who said that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior once a week — something that never used to happen. A head nurse at a hospital told me that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive…. We’re enmeshed in some sort of emotional, relational, and spiritual crisis, and it undergirds our political dysfunction and the general crisis of our democracy. What is going on?
Georgetown University’s Christine Porath reported in November 2022 that 70% of their 2000 participants witnessed rude behavior 2–3 times/month, up from 62% in 2016 and nearly 50% in 2005; and that 73% of participants found rude behavior “not unusual,” up from 61% in 2012.
As I have written before, 90% of us admit to Phubbing, i.e., when we snub our present company in favor of our mobile phone. People tend to think that’s rude unless they are doing it themselves, then it’s okay. Okay to be rude, that is.
And herein lies the problem as I see it. That is, the reason people are so rude is ‘because they can’.
Brooks agrees that technology is driving us nuts, that we have suffered massive isolation, and that America is challenged by demographic shifts, income inequality and insecurity stimulating the worst in us.
We can add to the above the threats and uncertainties from the Ukrainian War, the climate crisis, the potential extinction of humanity from infectious disease and AI, and anything else you can think of that might be keeping people up at night.
But Brooks also tells us that no matter how volatile and uncertain the world may have seemed in days gone by, at least there used to be civility training. “America was awash in morally formative institutions” set forth by the founding fathers and others who knew how low we humans could go if we could get away with it.
Gonthier agrees that there was a time when the well-to-do felt an obligation to model fine manners and gentility. But the post-war US became more and more prosperous, and with that developed a greater taste for freedom, such that the children of the 60s felt stifled by societal boundaries, many of which were arbitrary, racist, and sexist.
The disillusionment with the government over the Vietnam War contributed to a loss of respect for tradition. Hence, the virtual disappearance of deference and respect. The boomer generation raised kids with much greater permissiveness over manners and civility, respect for elders, and the like.
Dress became more casual, as did relationships, speech, grammar, posture, and body language. So now we have people shutting doors in other people’s faces for the fun of it — because they can.
By now, so much that was once considered rude is not even unusual, as the study participants have said.
This would all be fine if it was fine. But the mental health statistics are telling us that we have a lot on our plates and that many people are not doing all that well.
What if we threw the baby out with the bathwater? Should we bring it back — maybe not in exactly the way it used to be but some way somehow?
What We Can Do
Just in case you might be thinking that you are too small to make any difference on your own, then you haven’t spent a night with a mosquito, as the African proverb maintains.
And, if you are thinking none of this applies to you, remember The Superiority Illusion studies suggesting that most folks believe that they are better than everyone else.
So, what can we do? Can we smile more? Can we put our phones down? Can we watch our tone when we talk with others, which matters at least as much as our actual words? Although the words matter so much too: True, Kind, Necessary, Beneficial, as the Buddhists have said.
And when we mess up, can we apologize? That’s civilized too.
I just did that this morning, apologized, and am mighty glad that I did. Pick something for yourself, something you can do. Practice, Practice, practice…and let us know what you find.
Photo by worldofproverbs.com