By CEAN BURGESON
When did people stop being polite? Americans are an angry, confrontational, in-your-face group of people.
And it shows.
It’s difficult to put a finger on how this started. And what do we have to be so angry about? We live in the greatest country in the world and enjoy the many splendors of living in a free democratic society.
If a theater patron forgets to turn off their cell phone and it rings during the previews, someone in the crowd yells “turn that @#$% thing off!” If someone accidentally distracts a golfer in another group while he is teeing off, coarse words are exchanged. If someone gets up to take their child to the bathroom during a sporting event, a fan yells “down in front!”
We’ve all seen all of these things happen — and more.
How hard is it to introduce yourself politely and ask nicely for someone to turn off their phone, please be quiet, or say “thanks for moving out of my way so I can see the game, I appreciate it?”
We’ve become a rude society, especially with strangers, the very people we should use a higher level of etiquette towards.
But what counts as rudeness today? Do Americans have a shared definition of what is rude? In a recent survey called “Aggravating Circumstances,” funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, researchers took a detailed look at what Americans think about courtesy, manners, rudeness and respect.
Not only do eight in 10 Americans in the study say a lack of respect and courtesy is a serious problem, but six in 10 say things have become worse in recent years. A surprising 41 percent admit that they're part of the problem and sometimes behave badly themselves. More than a third (35 percent) admit to being aggressive drivers, at least occasionally, while 17 percent of those with cell phones admit to using them in a loud or annoying way.
We’ve all been witness to the road-rager or the public-place cell phone loud-talker. Some people just need to be politely reminded. We all make mistakes. But too often we treat each other with disrespect in these situations.
Customer service situations were prominent in the survey’s findings. Three-quarters of those surveyed said they've often seen customers treat sales staff rudely — while 46 percent also say they've walked out of a store because of the way the staff treated them. Nearly everyone surveyed (94 percent) said it's frustrating to "call a company and get a recording instead of a human being," and 77 percent said telemarketing is "rude and pushy."
Yet the news isn't all bad — many positive experiences occur in the marketplace. Nearly half of those surveyed say they often meet people who are kind and considerate in stores and other similar places. Many Americans say things have gotten better in showing respect and consideration to African Americans (59 percent), people with physical disabilities (51 percent) and gay people (50 percent). Large numbers acknowledge, however, that treatment of those groups still needs improvement (45 percent for gays, 42 percent for African Americans, and 34 percent for the disabled).
The warmth and support shown after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks raised hopes among many that Americans would reconsider what was important in their lives. I visited New York for the first time exactly one year after the disaster, and was astounded at how many people stopped to help me navigate the subway in Manhattan when I was unsure of which train to take in order to meet a friend.
Having lived on the East Coast myself and personally witnessed the infamous “New York attitude” associated with this group of people, I had to say I was pleasantly surprised at how this tragic event pulled together a whole city and helped them to return to a state where they were a little more considerate of their fellow man.
The Pew survey echoed my feelings. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed said that people had become more caring and thoughtful to others because of the attacks. But only 34 percent said the feeling would last a long time; 46 percent thought it would only last a few months and 18 percent believed it was already over.
With war raging, and other issues here in America taking the forefront of our daily concerns such as the economy, gas prices, joblessness, and the like, it’s easy to put our manners on the back burner. Yet most human enterprises proceed more smoothly if people are respectful and considerate of one another, and they easily become poisoned if people are unpleasant and rude.
As the old saying goes, politeness goes far, yet costs nothing.
Cean Burgeson can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org