We seem to all be drifting toward behaving like jerks.

So I’m in this store, and the aisle is very crowded. Crowded to the point of gridlock. “What could it be,” I ask myself and then I see, four carts up is a woman speaking very enthusiastically into a cell phone, her cart stretched diagonally across the aisle to the point that no other cart can pass from either direction. Seven people are standing there waiting.

Not having a cart myself, I weave my way through the logjam and ask her to excuse me so I can pass by. My thought is that when I do this she will see how she is inconveniencing others and move her cart over. “Pardon me,” I say, “could I get by?”

Without looking at me, she moves from behind her cart to the side to let me walk by. She does not, however, move her cart out of anyone else’s way. She just stands there yammering into the telephone glued to her ear.

Rudeness!

It’s called rudeness, and it is the bane of the age. And according to a study just released it is getting worse, if that’s possible. A combination of self‑absorbing communication gadgets and a growing narcissistic demand for instant gratification are making selfish boors out of all of us, it seems, and nearly everybody is noticing, even as they, we, contribute to the problem. Nearly 70%% of those recently polled said people are now ruder than they have ever been, and they are.

We use, and / or allow other people to use language in public that would have made a sailor blush 30 years ago. We’re routinely late to work, or parties, or wherever it is we are going. We call people on the phone and then tell them to wait while we take other calls coming in from someone else. We no longer open doors far women, or the elderly, or anyone else but ourselves. We drive aggressively, cutting in front of others just to get parking places 20 feet closer to the door.

We cut in line when we get into the store just to gain a minuscule time advantage which we think we, being the center of the universe, obviously deserve. We wear inappropriate, often offensive clothing; we allow our children to roam about in public, often in our presence, interacting with adults in sullen, non‑responsive ways. We tolerate indifferent salesclerks and often better their bad conduct by our own arrogant, impatient demands. Rudeness is everywhere.

All of it says one of two things; we are telling people by our conduct either that we are more important than they are, or even worse, that they are not important at all.

And it’s wrong, and it’s dangerous.

Our rude, insensitive ways have all but run civility out of existence.

You may remember civility ‑ the deliberate practice of courteous and polite behavior in our relationships with other people ‑ you may remember the days when everyone of every age and social group used to think of it as a civic, if not a moral, obligation?

Manners matter.

The code of civility by which we once lived was more than just social veneer; it was the lubricant that allowed the gears of society to operate our civilization, and without it the last century, the American Century, couldn’t have happened. Civility, like its cousin, morality, exists, or once did, to regulate social behavior, and both are critical, because without a uniform code of social behavior we cannot continue to operate as a society. That doesn’t mean we all have to agree with each other or to approve of each other’s conduct, but it does mean that we have to agree that no one of us is more important, or has more rights, than any of the people with whom we come into contact. It means that we have to agree that each person is entitled to respect and courtesy.

Human beings, even the most isolated of us, are social animals. We live in a society that must, if it is to function well at all, rest on a basic system of morality and civility. Rudeness from our children, or our friends, or from those with whom we do business, is not acceptable.

Shortly after Christmas I was talking to a woman who works for a large department store. “Some evenings I just came home and cried,” she said, speaking of the effect the rudeness of holiday shoppers had had on her. “It’s gotten worse every year,” she continued, “to the point I dread Christmas. “And I love Christmas,” she added sadly. I was talking to a psychologist the other day about people who verbally mistreat other people, and the conversation worked around to causes, things like background, temperament, whatever it is that seems to make some people incapable of courtesy to others. “There’s actually a term psychologists use for such people,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “We refer to such people as “jerks.”

We seem to all be drifting toward behaving like jerks. It’s time to slap ourselves in the face and walk the other way.

The Honorable Clayburn Peoples

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