Why We Need To Tackle Incivility As Firmly As Any Other Epidemic
The other day, I was at a store trying to exit with a parcel in my hand. I managed to get the heavy glass door open and was holding it open when two young women, possibly in their early twenties, one after the other, both speaking on their phones, sauntered past without so much as a smile forget the civility of a thank you, while I struggled to hold the door open and get myself and the parcels out.
A week or so ago, I was at the Women Writers Fest, Bengaluru, when a college student from one of the colleges that had sent in their students, sitting a couple of chairs away from me beckoned me with her index finger. Once. I ignored her. Once again. I went across, now curious as to what would necessitate this finger beckoning instead of a standard, “Excuse me,” given I was in audible range. “This agenda is wrong,” she told me showing me the printed agenda and the agenda on her phone with the same index finger she had used to beckon. She had last year’s agenda open on the phone. I told her she was reading the wrong agenda on the phone. She went back to scrolling her phone dismissively, without an apology or a thank you. She couldn’t have been a couple of years older than my son.
I wonder, are we irrefutably now in the Age of Rudeness. But apparently not. Rudeness and incivility has always been a problem.
These are recent incidents, but this has been endemic for a while, and these two incidents made me realise just how ingrained incivility has become. This fraying of the social fabric towards unapologetic rudeness seems to be universal, across countries, across continents. I wonder, are we irrefutably now in the Age of Rudeness. But apparently not. Rudeness and incivility has always been a problem. Over 2,000 years ago, Plato was moaning about the lack of politeness amongst the youth of his day much in the same way I’m doing so in 2019. Although to be fair, it is incivility spread equally across all ages and genders to be honest. It is just that the two recent incidents happened to be with young women in my case.
We see it at the queues for elevators where everyone pushes to enter, in queues at the check in counter at airports where you can have the back of an unwary knee taken out by an impatient trolley wielder behind you. We see it in the scramble to board and disembark where fistfights break out to clamber onto the bus to take you across the tarmac to the plane like there are window seats to be grabbed. And let’s not forget the line breaking that happens when one is standing patiently in a queue to check out at a supermarket because someone has only ‘four’ items.
The sad fact is we now treat each other with contempt and disdain as a people. This is undisguised contempt that goes around itself in circles, and much like Kekule’s snake seems to be a self fulfilling prophecy that none of us can escape from. We expect to be treated with contempt and hostility in an urban situation, so we arm ourselves with the carapace of contempt. This becomes a defence as well as an attack. Rudeness becomes the norm. Rudeness becomes survival. Niceness, civility and politeness are seen as weaknesses.
A week or so ago, we were passing a famous vada pav stall near a college in Central Mumbai. The offspring was despatched to fetch us some, and the spouse and I waited a distance away for him. A long while later, when neither the vada pavs and the offspring had materialised, the spouse went to check up. They returned, the spouse shaking his head disdainfully. “He was waiting for his turn. Everyone was pushing past him. He would have waited there forever if I hadn’t gone.” I realise my lessons to him to wait for his turn render him inadequate in the real life situation of pushing forward and grabbing.
Strangely enough, public boorishness and rudeness is seen as a sort of power display. That you have the power or the wherewithal to be rude to another, and not be pulled up or punished for it is a muscle flexing of sorts. This is not the era where you hold the door open for someone and can even expect a quick smile of gratitude, forget a verbalised thank you. Is the lapse of public civility a heralding of us as civilisations falling into social disarray even as the anthropocene is upon us?
We expect to be treated with contempt and hostility in an urban situation, so we arm ourselves with the carapace of contempt. This becomes a defence as well as an attack. Rudeness becomes the norm.
Why are people rude to others in a public situation? Is it a manifestation of their inner lack of self esteem that demands they leach their feeling of self worth off another’s discomfort? Did Eric Hoffer have it right when he said that rudeness is a weak man’s imitation of strength. It is interesting that being polite and civil is seen as a form of weakness, of servility, or being in some manner inferior to the one pushing, being brusque, being uncouth? Or is it, as a writer once wrote, how people treat others is a reflection of how they believe they deserve to be treated. Is rudeness a sign of a generic low self esteem within the populace?
Or is it the absolute freeing effect of being rude, when you are expected to be polite. What is it about being rude that is gloriously freeing from the pressures of being constantly polite and pleasant with those around no matter that you are in a lousy mood? If anything I think a lot of women have gotten into uncomfortable and downright dangerous situations because they have been constantly conditioned to be ‘likeable’. Given this, I think a little bit of rudeness is a good thing.
But on the whole, that rudeness seems to have become endemic in a society should actually be a cause of worry. It is a sign that the social fabric has begun to fray. It could also be a sign that people are pulling up rudeness as a barricade to interpersonal interaction. Interpersonal interaction is getting reduced. We would rather text than talk, rather talk than meet, rather skype than get together. We are setting ourselves up in little silos where we would rather interact with a device than a person. Devices are safer. Could rudeness be humanity’s vaccination against being let down constantly by others, could it just be insulation against being at the receiving end themselves? Could this also be an outcrop of social media and the fact that one allows one’s barriers down on these platforms and therefore does not consider it essential to keep a modicum of civility offline? After all, anyone who has seen the pack hounds of online troll mobs knows that the online world is where humans go to lose all civility. Or could this also be the rise in the levels of stress we have these days, with work pressure 24 x 7, academic stress and other worries taking over much of our mindspace so we have little or no bandwidth left to be pleasant to those we come in contact with.
Could rudeness be humanity’s vaccination against being let down constantly by others, could it just be insulation against being at the receiving end themselves?
We consider children rude when often they are just speaking straight and honest. Children have no filters when they’re young. As they grow older they get trained in how to cloak their actual thoughts with statements that are socially acceptable. They get tutored in how to behave in an appropriate manner. Often, children are at the receiving end of much rudeness themselves. We do tend sometimes to speak with children in a manner we would not dare to speak with an adult. And this makes them repeat the cycle when they grow up. What this also does is normalise rudeness. When primary caregivers have taught children that a rude tone of voice is acceptable in their everyday communication, children might not even realise that this is not supposed to be the norm.
Even in the everyday, rudeness has a cascading effect. One rude encounter can result in a foul mood and a not so positive interaction with the next person who comes your way until you have effectively managed to create a series of unpleasant encounters all through whoever has crossed your path. Whether one realises it or not, rudeness is contagious, it spreads quicker than a virus and often goes untreated until it affects everyone in its ambit, spreading out like a shockwave.
Is politeness the answer then, in this increasingly uncouth world or is the malaise much deeper. Is it calling out the chappie who cuts into the line at security check? Is it calling out “Thank you” to someone who barges past you as you hold a door open? Or is just simply learning to be mindful of others around in the same way as one is mindful about oneself. There is definitely a need for a movement to bring us back to civility as a society-and for that we need to start with ourselves, and our children. It is only when the individual moves towards being civil that society becomes civil again and that no one can do for us but ourselves. All it takes really is being mindful that we treat others the way we would like to be treated. And that couldn’t be all that difficult to follow, could it?
Image Credit: HealthyPlace.com
Kiran Manral is Ideas Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.