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Rude Awakening: From surly clerks to demon drivers, Howard Stern to the house of Commons, we're suffering through an epidemic of incivility.

CHARLIE GILLIS | Apr 05, 2004 | Maclean's.

FIRST, A LOUD snorting sound. Then the hawking of phlegm -- lots of it. Finally, a fugue of sighing and cursing, directed at no one in particular but within earshot of a half-dozen cringing Air Canada passengers. This, alas, was the soundtrack to my recent flight from Regina to Toronto -- thanks to a leather-clad, 30-something, Maxim-reading cheeseball seated in my row. And that was just the beginning: we had hardly reached cruising altitude when my seatmate began prodding me with the corner of his lad mag, spontaneously identifying a few of the models he wished to "do." I smiled weakly and nodded, hoping he'd leave me alone. But after a prolonged round of snuffling and fidgeting, he leaned toward me again, this time gesturing to one of his oversized nostrils. "You know," he confided, glancing about the cabin, "it gets pretty raw up there when you inhale the kind of substances I do."

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Now, I hate to sound uncivil, especially in an article about incivility. But you can forgive a person who endures three hours cooped up with a hormonally challenged cokehead for growing a tad peevish. Which is why, as I left the plane in Toronto, I may have been heard muttering something about natural selection being overrated. Or the need for moron detectors at airport security. Whatever it was, I'm not proud of it.


But that's the thing about rudeness: it's contagious. Gross me out, ruin my flight, invade my space, and you might not hear about it from me. But there's a good chance the next unlucky soul I meet will. And we all know from anecdotal experience that airplanes aren't the only place where it spreads. It seems everywhere you turn these days, you encounter some snapping clerk, unapologetic buttinski in a bank queue or party guest who flunked out of knife-and-fork school. More than one friend has spoken to me in recent weeks of spats witnessed between customers in grocery store checkouts("The sign says eight items or less!"), while front-line office workers are reporting increasing levels of surliness among both clients and colleagues. Police have documented the rise of road rage across the country, and television, I hardly need mention, has developed an outright fetish for in-your-faceness: Janet Jackson's boob-flash and U2 singer Bono's recent use of the f-word on national TV might have rekindled a debate on broadcast standards. But they are merely the latest manifestations of a decorum slide that has already brought us the likes of Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and, for that matter, the daily jeer-fest in the House of Commons.


This isn't mere whining from the chronically disgruntled, either. According to surveys taken in the U.S., fully eight out of 10 Americans consider incivility to be a serious problem, while 61 per cent think it has worsened in recent years. Canadian data is sparser, but one poll conducted in 1999 indicated 65 per cent of us expected public manners to deteriorate over the next decade, even as other key quality-of-life indicators were on the upswing. The closest thing to an explanation comes from pollster Angus Reid, who has tracked public opinion on most major issues through the last two decades. In the late 1980s, Reid noticed a selfish tone creeping into the responses of Canadians -- which he associated with the rise of free-market, individualist ideology. "We were becoming more of a society where people thought, 'How do I survive?' " he says. "In that kind of world, what do we do? We begin to build walls around ourselves."


It's a sad fate for a civilization based, in theory at least, on the presumption of social progress. After an intellectual enlightenment, a couple of world wars and a communications revolution, you'd think we'd make a few strides in the realm of daily human relations. But in the last couple of decades, all the available evidence suggests the opposite has taken place. If anything, we appear to be losing ground.


SAMANTHA DUFTON had plenty of faith in humankind when she parked last winter in the pregnant mothers' space at the Zehrs supermarket in Stratford, Ont. The 20-year-old was hours from giving birth and just starting to feel labour pains when she went to the store, thinking it would relieve her discomfort to walk around. But after 20 minutes of shopping, she returned to find a note on her windshield -- and it wasn't from a well-wisher. The anonymous writer suggested she was fat, not pregnant, and accused her of using the space fraudulently. The letter went on to suggest she park across the lot in the future because she "could use the exercise." For Dufton, it was a harsh lesson in the unkindness of strangers. "I mean, these people didn't even know me," she says. "For all they knew, I could have been three months pregnant and on bed rest."


Without realizing it, Dufton had run smack into what experts consider a leading cause of incivility -- namely, the protective shell of anonymity modern society provides us. As Canada and other western populations become increasingly secular, mobile and wired, goes this thinking, we lose the personal connection to our fellow citizens once forged through block parties or Sunday church. That, in turn, reduces the incentive to treat perfect strangers with courtesy and respect. "There is a neighbourhood control that comes with a close-knit community," says Pier Massimo Forni, an Italian literature professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and perhaps the world's foremost authority on civility. "If little Tim breaks Mr. Thompson's window with a baseball, and Mrs. Smith knows what has happened, she'll tell little Tim's mother."


Forni, who co-founded the Johns Hopkins Civility Project, a think-tank studying the influence of politeness on contemporary society, has devised a three-part theory as to the roots of incivility. Anonymity is one cause; another is stress. The combined pressures of work and home are greater now than they've ever been -- particularly in the growing number of single-parent households -- and when the pressure's on, we tend to snap. The third and possibly most important factor, he says, is narcissism, and for this Forni pins partial blame on the self-esteem movement that dominated child-rearing and education in the 1970s and '80s. "When we feed our children super-sized doses of self-esteem, we sometimes wind up with kids who are self-absorbed," he says. "They have trouble transcending their own immediate concerns, needs and desires. They are not attentive. They are not considerate, they are not courteous, they are not kind. They are trapped in a narcissistic cage of our own design."

Wow. That's a lot to lay at the feet of a few well-meaning psychologists, and it's probably worth noting here that young people aren't the only ones acting disrespectfully. Brittany Libby, a 16-year-old from Sherwood Park, Alta., recalls one couple in their late 60s who stopped at her drive-through window at the Wendy's where she worked last summer. Though Libby was clearly swamped with lunchtime orders, the pair demanded she dispose of a bag of garbage from their car. When she sunnily suggested they use the trash bin around the corner, within arm's reach of their window, they snapped. "The man just turned to me and said, 'F--- you,' " Libby recalls. "His wife gave me the finger, and they were both, like, deadly serious. Really angry. They took all of their napkins and garbage -- everything from their car, even stuff like Tim Hortons coffee cups -- and dumped it on the ground."


SO THE GENERATION following us into adulthood may have just as much to complain about as we do. But Forni does raise some intriguing points about the roots of discourtesy -- and the possible implications for public policy. Should incivility be treated strictly as learned behaviour, something exclusively within the ambit of individuals and families? Or is it a symptom of larger social ills? Let's say Canadians are behaving worse in hospital waiting rooms than they were 20 years ago; do we blame the stress wrought by underfunding in hospitals? Or do we blame Canadians -- doctors, nurses, patients and patients' families -- for acting like jerks?

They're the kinds of issues Angus Reid mulled seriously when he was writing his 1996 book Shakedown: How the New Economy is Changing Our Lives. His conclusion -- that the decay of public institutions has eroded the collective trust, co-operation and courtesy in Canada -- is an overtly political one. But the consequences, Reid argues, are not: "People don't often connect the dots from this market-driven, privatized zero-sum-gain mentality that exists out there and the level of conviviality in everyday life," he says. "But there is a level of seething anger, and people are feeling alone. And ultimately, that comes right back and bites us in the behind economically. More litigation. More cops. More security. Basically, we end up investing an enormous amount of energy in boundary maintenance issues."

It seems only right, then, that the private sector is leading the movement to restore politesse to the office and the marketplace as a whole. If you work for a major corporation, you've probably seen the notices: "Emotional Intelligence: How to Relate to Your Peers," or, "Putting the Best Foot Forward: Why Manners Matter in Today's Business World" are staple in-house seminars for companies hoping to woo clients and create harmonious workplaces. They appear tailored to a generation ignorant of civil behaviour, yet conscious of its shortcomings. Karen Mallett, co-founder of the Civility Group Inc., a Winnipeg-based company that provides etiquette workshops to firms across the country, believes there is a longing in the business community for better etiquette, from management on down. "I believe people are craving civility for reasons of confidence," she says, "so they're not worrying every minute that they're saying or doing the wrong thing."


Of course, this exposes the whole civility movement to accusations of bourgeois priggishness -- that manners as we know them seek to perpetuate class differences best left to history(four centuries ago, European nobles were supplied with manuals governing cleanliness, table manners, speech and facial expression; it was one way they could distinguish each other from the peasants). But Forni says modern concepts of civility reach beyond class chauvinism to our very emotional and spiritual well-being. "Manners and civility are an area of human behaviour where altruism and self-interest converge," he says. "If we are uncivil, we have trouble building the network of social support that is essential for our sanity and our health."

All of which, I suppose, is bad news for my airline seatmate -- a man Henry Higgins himself couldn't transform into an acceptable specimen of humanity. As our plane ground to a halt in Toronto, he immediately began piling baggage from his overhead bin onto the seat, allowing much of it to tumble onto my lap. I'd like to be able to say that, at this critical juncture, I confronted incivility head-on; that I shut down this unrepentant boor in the greater interests of society; or that I won him over with my politeness and charm, engaging him in a bout of witty repartee. Instead, I followed him off the airplane in hostile silence, muttering my oaths as I passed him in the skyway before melting as rudely as I could manage into the airport crowd. I'm pretty sure he didn't notice.


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