Saturday, June 19, 2010

Why everyone seems so much ruder these days (but probably isn't)

Grumpy and prickly: or are appearances deceiving?

It started with a tweet I read by an exasperated person who was in proximity with someone chatting on a cell phone. The crux of the comment was that nobody has any boundaries these days and that everyone has simply gotten so horribly rude.

So...is it rude?

Has rudeness truly increased?

I've thought a lot about this lately. It occurred to me that perhaps we aren't ruder as a people -- perhaps we simply have a lot of evolution rapidly entering our society, and our mores haven't had a chance to catch up. More importantly, perhaps we have more overlapping cultural mores than ever.

In other words, there are so very many people living in close proximity, crossing paths daily, and the truth is, we're so mobile now -- but of course, everywhere we go, we take ourselves (and our personal and cultural mores).

That means that all these people we're bumping up against are not likely to be from our village, raised with our same rules, manners, regulations, mores, and ideas.

I remember when I first moved to Massachusetts I was still Friendly+Chatty. In the checkout line in the grocery store I'd say hello to the checkout person, do some idle chitchat, that sort of thing. And the person? Would stare at me as if I'd grown two heads.

I began to understand why New Englanders had a reputation for being unfriendly. The truth is, they are wonderfully kind people, in general, though reserved at first, and plainspoken. This can be misinterpreted as Unfriendly. I ought to know. I'm like that naturally and taught myself out of it. You see, growing up in the South this sort of behavior is cause for sending one to the doctor for diagnosis.

So, in the end, I discovered I could relax and not force friendly chatter, which was a personal relief, but I also found I missed it...more than a little. I also discovered that fluffy chit chat with mostly strangers was not ludicrous and initial reserve wasn't a bad thing. More importantly, though, I realized that these were simply two different styles.

Sometimes, styles clash, at least initially.

The other day at Starbucks two lovers clutched hands and whispered to one another on a purple faux velvet couch. It seemed rather intimate to me, especially in such surroundings, but I ignored it, until they began kissing so passionately that the wet sucking sounds reached me across the space and over the rather loud Bob Marley playing through the overhead speakers.

Ugh, I wrote in Twitter, describing the scene. Most people tweeted agreement that it was horribly rude.

But perhaps someone silently dissented.

I usually silently dissent when people express their vast annoyance of people who talk on cell phones in public. I do so because sometimes I do. I know my sister does, and I know that is usually because grocery shopping while kids are in school is sometimes her only chance to chat on the phone, and that solo time is so limited she has to multi-task. It's just not that big of a deal to me when people talk on cell phones around me. It doesn't get to me any more than two friends talking in person with one another.

So I don't mind it, but someone else does. I do, but someone else would never.

Does that make it rude?

Once upon a time, the social graces were clear, and in a given region, everyone knew those mores. This past Spring, I accompanied my daughter's second grade class to a way back field trip -- we went to a one room school house for a day of living in 1898. I had to have my ankles covered because I was over 12. My hair had to be up. Boys and girls sat on separate sides of the room. Children entered the classroom together, single file line, shortest to tallest, girls first. They lined up by their desks and had to say their names one by one, then curtsy (if a girl) or bow (if a boy) and wait for the teacher to permit them to sit. Students did not lean back in their chairs, and sat up straight, with hands clasped on top of the desk unless the hands were occupied with an assigned task. In 1898, the Nineteenth Amendment hadn't yet passed, and the more of the time was that women weren't to be included or consulted in the running of the very society they lived in. This doesn't mean they lacked influence, but they certainly couldn't back up their talk with votes. Roles were distinct and clear. Rules were well-defined. What was good manners was obvious, as was what was rude.

It's not so clear cut, these days, and society mixes much more than ever before. It's also more complicated in so many respects.

So, in the breach, we make up our own rules for manners, interpret the old ones for modern times, and do our best to decide how to live courteously. There is no mass buy-in on everything.

Do we greet our neighbors? Once upon a time, this was de rigeur. However now, with just as many frequent movers as natives in many places, some would find a welcome wagon intrusive, while others would find its lack horribly rude.

Do we talk on cell phones in public? I suspect in busy New York City people hardly think twice about it (correct me if I'm wrong). New Yorkers are used to creating necessary artificial privacy boundaries and tuning out the people around them. However, in my small town, where people frequently are expected to greet the people around them, or commune with awareness of each other, even if silently, I don't see too many public phone conversations and I think many people would find it unmannerly.

Frequently society and its rules and mores catch up to innovation and rules begin to appear. I should say historically. For example, already society is getting on board with not only creating an unwritten rule against driving while texting, but in many places, drivers face written rule consequences is caught texting while driving.

But talking on a phone in public, such as at a grocery store? I don't imagine there will ever be enough impetus to create any kind of rule, even unwritten, against it. So much of our modern life fits in this same bucket. It's just too hard to create a consensus.

So, perhaps, the best thing to do is to adapt -- be a New Yorker at times and decrease your awareness of those around you through artificial mental privacy barriers, and be a Southerner and commune in a friendly, though sometimes silent, way with those around you.

What if instead of worrying so much about rules we instead understood that so much of what we think of as manners is based on our own personal preferences and personal culture?

What if instead of getting so annoyed by someone else, who may simply be talking on the phone, and deeming them Rude, we instead thought, "I don't prefer that and wouldn't do it, but that's a preference. Tuning out starting now..."

What do you think -- preference or rule? Rude or cultural/stylistic difference?