A new report proves what we all know – the world is getting ruder. In his latest Against the Grain commentary, CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer politely chimes in.
Shut up and read!
That kind of rudeness has become a "serious problem for our society," according to 79 percent of those surveyed for a new study of manners in America. The report, by Public Agenda and The Pew Charitable Trusts, is timely and absolutely fascinating.
And I'm very sorry for saying, "shut up."
We all know public space is too rude and getting ruder. Cataloging everyday discourtesies is what sane people do now to cope with the impolite America. Can you remember the last barbecue or post-work cocktail session where the conversation didn't eventually turn to road rage maniacs, obnoxious cell phone squawkers, loony little league parents or surly store clerks?
The Public Agenda study goes beyond outraged anecdotes and systematically studies our attitudes toward civility through focus groups and polls. The conclusion is that Americans "are witnessing a deterioration of courtesy and respectfulness that has become a daily assault on their sensibilities and the quality of their lives."
Those are strong words coming from normally measured pollsters. They comport precisely with what I've heard in every 'manners today' conversation ever I've had.
The views of those polled were not unsophisticated or without nuance. For example, there was a wide belief that respect and courtesy shown toward minorities and disabled people has improved over time. And 41 percent freely admit that they have been rude and disrespectful themselves.
The report goes on to dissect public opinion about customer service, phone etiquette, foul language, littering, school dress codes, and the World Wrestling Federation. It's interesting social science in an area where social scientists usually fear to tread.
But it's not as much fun and incendiary as the anecdotes.
As I was working on this piece, I got an important looking letter with "Explanation of Benefits" printed on the envelope. Naturally, I assumed it had to do with my CBS health benefits or my 401(k). Wrong. It was a solicitation from Money Magazine. A flat-out lie, just to peddle a magazine -- living proof of the intolerable rudeness I was writing about as I was writing about it. But what do you do except tolerate it?
The epitome of the Rude Rage, of course, is Lizzie Grubman, the rich, young New York publicist who plowed her Mercedes SUV into 16 people at a Hamptons bar last summer when the bouncer ticked her off. Before September 11th she was the story, at least in New York. After September 11th, her story was sort of symbol of how trivial many of our worries were, before the tragedy.
Of course Lizzie Grubman is trivial by comparison. But the aggressive disregard for strangers she came to symbolize is not. Yes, she's a bizarre extreme and a good story because she's rich and supposedly glamorous. But mini-Lizzie Grubman's crash into us every day.
They wear T-Shirts with the f-word on them. They hide behind the anonymity of e-mail to say things to their kids' teachers that they would never say in person. They sit at the next table and yodel into their cell phones about their dermatological traumas. They sponsor the Big A** Happy Hour at the saloon around the corner.
They shut down the register when you get to the front of the line at the drug store. They 'trash talk' in football games played from Soldier Field to Lincoln Elementary. They floss and curl eyelashes on the subway.
They go on daytime talk shows to do and say shocking things.
They produce the daytime talk shows -- and shock-jock radio shows, food-fight cable news shows, incredibly lewd music videos, bathroom humor sitcoms, raunchy soap operas, disgusting Web sites and professional wrestling.
Raising children in this environment is a challenge, to put it mildly.
It's hard enough to watch your own mouth, mind your own manners and control your own temper. It is conceivably possible to police children's access to television, radio, books, video games and the Web. It is patently impossible to control the T-shirts people wear on the street, the language at the next table at Burger King, the fans at a basketball game, the street gestures of other drivers. But you try.
So it's not surprising that 84 percent of the people Public Agenda talked to felt that "parents failing to teach respect" was a major cause of rude and disrespectful behavior in society.
I'm not a social scientist so I'm allowed to rant. The great virtue of this new report is that it shows, to the degree such things are provable, just how many of us are ranting too.
And thank you so much for reading this.
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.
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Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer
Copyright 2002 CBS. All rights reserved.