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