I See Rude People: One Woman's Battle to Beat Some Manners Into Impolite Society
By Amy Alkon
(McGraw-Hill, 224 pages, $16.95)
Rudeness is the human condition, always was, always will be, says Amy Alkon in her new book: I See Rude People: One Woman's Battle to Beat Some Manners Into Impolite Society. The difference is there are fewer restraints on our "grabby, self-involved jerkhood" than ever before.
Alkon, an advice columnist and a disciple of evolutionary psychology, quotes researchers John Tooby and Leda Cosmides saying: "Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind." Sadly, our minds are the only things that have not changed. Simply put, we live in societies that are too big for our primitive brains. A case in point: once upon a time if you behaved rudely in a small community, someone would call your mother, which is how our Stone Age ancestors no doubt reacted as well. After all, anti-social behavior could spell doom for an entire tribe. Tribes or small villages, therefore, had effective ways of dealing with social thugs. Most notably: shame. In bygone eras, shame was as essential to survival as food and water. Rude boys were warned they had better change their anti-social behavior, or face exile into the savannah or the Serengeti, where there were no Comfort Inns or pizza parlors to help them survive.
Alkon, a New Yorker, suggests that genetically we are best fitted to live in small groups of no more than 150 people, which even today is the average population for the few hunter-gather societies still extant. There is a reason such small villages seldom, if ever, require a police presence. But more than 150 people and we begin to grow anxious, impersonal…and rude.
Rudeness, in fact, thrives on anonymity, which explains the incredible discourtesy on the Internet. Today, however, in our large, anonymous communities -- strangerhoods, Alkon calls them -- shame and ostracization are like Aquaman's superpowers on dry land: totally useless.
Obviously, rudeness, especially among rebellious teenagers, has been a problem for as long as there have been cities or city-states. "The characteristic behavior of young manhood was compounded of extravagance, pugnacity, thoughtlessness, drunkenness and sexual excess," writes Sir Kenneth Dover in Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle. Likewise, nearly every generation credits its young with bringing about the destruction of civilization. So, is our current state of affairs that dire, or is it just our imagination? Alkon thinks it is. A "hostile self-centeredness" has crept into society since the turn of the millennium, she says. It affects all classes and castes, from the ghetto teens giggling stupidly and noisily throughout a movie to the loudmouth lawyer screaming into his phone at Starbucks. The question is, why now?
ALKON DOESN'T SAY SO, but I suspect today's hostile self-centeredness is a result of the 1980s-'90s mania for self-expression and self-esteem, and the effect it had on entire generations of young people, those now in their thirties to fifties. "The New Rudeness" or "people wildly indifferent to other people," came about after a perfect storm of sorts, the convergence of technology (the cell phone and the Internet) and the Look-at-Me Generation, kids who grew up high on self-esteem and self-expression and low on empathy. Today, they are passing these anti-values onto their inconsiderate children. When one sees children acting up in a grocery store, it is because their parents are allowing the little darlings to express themselves, and correcting them may harm their self-esteem. (One wonders what little girls are expressing when they are allowed to dress like hookers?)
As far as Alkon is concerned, over-indulgent parents, cell phone loudmouths, dinner-time telemarketers (I would add leaf blower operators and motorcyclists with the loud pipes) are petty thieves. They are not just inconsiderate and rude, they are privacy muggers and bush league socio-paths, who steal our time and our peace of mind. And, for that, they should be invoiced for time wasted. Worse, they have hordes of enablers who rush to their defense, telling us to "deal," or "give 'em a break," or "if you don't like it, go to the library!" It's like the entire nation has Stockholm Syndrome, Alkon says, "where the hostage goes all cuddly on their kidnappers."
Naturally, the Advice Goddess has a solution, one that is equal parts "pay it forward" and corrective justice: treat strangers like neighbors, but do not be impassive victims of rude behavior. Alkon even suggests following the French example of correcting other people's bratty children in public. Confrontation, however, is not always an option. One must pick one's fights, which usually means confronting only old ladies and moms and businessmen. "I…make it my business to just suck it up whenever somebody barking into a cell phone is wearing one of those gangland shower caps or looks like they might be armed," she writes.
Civilization does not come naturally to us, says Alkon. We have to aspire to it. To help us out, Alkon offers one little piece of advice that will make getting along with strangers a lot easier: It [comes] down to this: Your right to have loud, dull cell phone conversations [or to bring your screaming child on a plane] ends where the rest of our ears begin." Let's hope the inconsiderate bastards are listening.
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