Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cuss Politely

A few blogs ago, the topic, inspired by an angry driver, was incivility. This is something widely regarded as a modern plague, though one against which few of us choose to inoculate ourselves. In her 2009 book I See Rude People, “Advice Goddess” Amy Alkon attributes incivility to the modern lifestyle of living among strangers. Citing solid research on the subject, she argues that humans are wired for social groups of about 150. When we live among 150 people who know us by name, peer pressure is enough to keep us in line. This lifestyle was common as late as the 1950s when people in a neighborhood typically knew each other. Nowadays, a person’s 150-group is likely to be scattered geographically. We move frequently and no longer know our physical neighbors or the patrons in the local coffee shop; “neighborhood” now simply means a contiguous area where real estate values are similar. Anyone we encounter on the street we’re unlikely to know or to meet again. We don’t feel peer pressure from those around us; any rudeness goes mostly unremarked and unpunished. We get out of the habit of behavior that once was called “neighborly.”

Having enjoyed I See Rude People, I picked up a copy of Alkon’s 2014 book Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck (asterisk in the original). The title alone says something about how manners have changed since the 1950s. Language has become salty in situations where it once wasn’t. One example: Before the start of the off-Broadway play Triassic Parq, a musical parody of Jurassic Park, the announcer warned, “If your cell phone rings, the dinosaurs have permission to eat your fucking face.” This evoked nothing more than a few chuckles. Arguably, though, this just indicates a swing back toward the earthy linguistic pattern of the 18th century, an era in which manners otherwise were more formal than today. For example, during the debates in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Elbridge Gerry – whose district-drawing skills are honored in the word “gerrymander” – argued against a standing army by comparing it to an engorged penis, “an excellent assurance of domestic tranquility, but a dangerous temptation to foreign adventure.” The simile is as unlikely in Congress today as is the eloquence with which it was constructed. What passes for polite vocabulary in contemporary general company, however, is less important than behavior, such as letting your cell phone ring in a theater.

If you’ve never read Alkon before, I recommend reading I See Rude People first. It is the most entertaining of her books and it covers all the basic points she has to make, but as a supplement Good Manners, etc. has some value, too. Once again she describes her efforts to shame rude people publicly as a way of restoring peer pressure to a community of strangers. For example, when a person from a nearby area disposed of empty boxes by dropping them by the side of the road on her street – and was careless enough to leave address labels on them – she posted photos on her blog along with the name of the dumper, so that if you google the person’s name the photos pop up. Most of the book, though, is indeed a manners guide with especial attention to modern communications technology and social media, areas uncovered by traditional etiquette books. Failing to turn off a cell phone is more likely forgetfulness than an intentional rudeness, but we’ve all been distracted by the blue glow of cell screens in theaters by people who can’t wait 90 minutes to read and send texts. Then there is texting at the table during a dinner date, which she likens to “whipping out a pen and legal pad and saying to your date, ‘You busy yourself with that pork chop, sweetcheeks. Got a couple letters I need to mail out first.’” She writes at length about what sort of online presence you want to have, how much to reveal, and how to manage posts and responses. She advises against “trying to ‘cure’ someone’s political point of view by barraging them with yours…” Then there is her chapter on (primarily hetero) dating, titled “Dating is War.” She not just describes common rudeness, but suggests making allowances, too: “The truth is, in dating, a good bit of the hurt and anger people feel is caused not by rude behavior but by misconceptions about the opposite sex and the way things ‘should’ work as opposed to the way they actually do.”

At bottom, though tilted toward modern tech, the book has the same fundamental advice found in etiquette books of a century ago: treat people the way you want to be treated whether they “deserve” it or not. The advice is the same for cyberspace as for meatspace. It’s a trite message, but that doesn’t make it any less sensible – and in a world of strangers a reminder of it is welcome.

Too Rude – Rolling Stones


  1. Oh man, my wife would love that book. I'm going to tell her about it for sure. She is convinced the world has gotten a lot ruder in the past twenty years or so. But she doesn't consider "rude language" to be... well... rude. She swears like a sailor. :)

    On-line it does seem to be a ruder place. I was remembering our "civil" discussions with anime fans back in the late 1990s. And like any group of nerdy fans, discussions could get heated. But it really doesn't compare to some of the insane things I see on forums and even on Facebook these days. People actually ruining friendships because of the way someone wrote about their favorite director... seriously?

    1. Amy Alkon writes enjoyably and (usually) convincingly. Once again, if you buy only one of her books, I'd recommend "I See Rude People." It's very funny and contains everything relevant.

      Online intolerance of opposing points of view -- not just on politics but on everything from music videos to anime -- is rampant. Opponents don't just have different initial principles or artistic preferences; they are accused of being stupid and evil for disagreeing. One develops a thick skin or risks being drawn into the flame wars.

  2. Yes, I think people have become more rude and intolerant of another person's opinion. I had a friend recently, who I have not heard from in around five years. He'd been on a conspiracy kick, but then he's very tricky in his beguiling ways as well, which stems from him being the baby of the family and being spoiled. Anyway he emailed me and had a link about a musician--fairly innocuous. I emailed him back on music.

    He emailed me again, partly music, partly home affairs, and such, fairly genial stuff, and then he comes out with his to nutty conspiracy stuff: You probably know nothing of this, but they passed TPA this week and will pass the TPP soon, which shoves the US into a Economic Union, just like the EU, which destroyed the sovereignty of every European country .... It will do exactly the same to us. The USA is about to be NO more ... It'll be controlled by Mega Corporations, all owned by the Illuminati. WDC are all traitors to the Constitution, but they are all being very well paid for their treason. Time for Texas to Secede. Jade Helm 15 is no exercise. They are merely putting the asset in place to deal with the aftermath of that collapse. You probably don't know about that either, but it's preparation for military occupation, just like Marshall Law.

    I write him back, (actually, a little angry about the Jade Helms thing as I was aware of it, but more because he thinks I'm totally unaware of such things). I tell him as best I can I don't subscribe to such conspiracy theories.

    He writes me back: I wrote a very long email in response, but just deleted it, ain't wasting any more of my valuable time .... I give up and I am finished. No reason to reply .... I won't see it ...

    Aw, nothing like friendship :)

    But I guess I might mention something I heard from Bill Maher, he ask: When did we develop such thin skins? We used to hear an opposing opinion, and you just think I don't agree with it and move on.

    1. There always have been conspiracy theorists. Two centuries ago some folks were all hot and bothered about the Freemasons, noting that many prominent politicos were masons. The real Illuminati were shut down precisely because Bavarian officials took them seriously – though the prevailing evidence is that they shouldn’t have. There really are political conspiracies, of course, and sometimes (e.g. the Bolsheviks in 1917) they’re even successful. There are (and long have been) people who favor precisely the sort of global order that freaks out your friend – see “The Open Conspiracy” and “The New World Order” by HG Wells for remarkably candid arguments in favor of it. As you might know, Carroll Quigley, Bill Clinton’s favorite history professor at Georgetown, was the leading serious 20th century academic who took the view that secret societies are behind much of history – see “The Anglo-American Establishment” – and unsurprisingly is much quoted by the theorists. But, to my mind, the notion that a shadow organization is already running the world begs the question of why it’s doing such a bad job of it.

      I don’t know why we have gotten so intolerant of different views. Instead of allowing that different sets of first principles (at bottom, postulates about the nature of man) can lead to different coherent philosophies of ethics and politics, folks all too often conclude, “Well, since I’m most certainly right, the only explanation for your opposition is that you are either stupid or depraved.” There must be something satisfying in this assertion for it to be so commonplace, but is doesn’t allow for respectful disagreement. There really is no use debating someone who thinks you are stupid or depraved, so it just shuts down conversation.

      What is there to do in those cases than go back to discussing music?

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