Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

The Decline Of Civility In Public Places

March 17, 1997

What ever happened to respect and civility in public life? Everyday we are confronted with rudeness and coarseness that tell us that decency and consideration for others is declining.

I was offended by profane graffiti on a cement embankment marring a favorite and secluded creekside scene. Recently, as my wife and I were walking together, teenagers driving by took the occasion to yell disparaging remarks.

Call-in talk shows are filled with political bashing. Rabid fans reign profanity on referees and opposing players. Athletes throw disgraceful temper tantrums when things don't go their way. School administrators and teachers complain about the lack of respect students have for them as adults and authority figures as well as for each other.

Drivers cut each other off and retaliate with menacing driving and obscene gestures. People jockey to gain unfair position in lines at stores and entertainment events. The elderly no longer feel treated with dignity and respect. Bureaucrats can be grumpy and insensitive. Competition among professionals erodes collegiality.

Television shows and movies routinely show edgy characters with an "in-your-face" attitude and a willingness to break the rules. "Get out of my way or I'll blast you into next week," or "Go ahead, sue me and may the most expensive lawyer win."

Sarcasm, cynicism and put-down humor are staples of TV sit-coms. Egos preen as respected talk show commentators interrupt each other and don't allow each other to finish their thoughts.

Have I hit enough hot buttons? I'm sure you have your pet annoyances about public rudeness that could be added to the list.

Miss Manners to the rescue. Author and columnist Judith Martin (also known as Miss Manners) has written a book, "Miss Manners Rescues Civilization From Sexual Harassment, Frivolous Lawsuits, Dissing and Other Lapses in Civility." She describes manners as society's common language of behavior. Manners help protect the dignity of everyone, especially society's less powerful members.

Good manners are a form of morality. Manners may not be as important as moral courage and standing up for justice and fairness, but manners show morality in the everyday events of life. They are signs of a willingness to take the feelings and welfare of others into consideration by our small actions as well as our big ones.

Manners imply order, compassion, respect, courtesy and consideration. Good manner requires paying attention to what situation you are in and going by the rules. Tradition counts. Manners prevent big problems by small actions.

The public is winning a few battles. Smokers are forced to consider the rights of non-smokers. Public sensitivity to littering and the environment is increasing.

Why the decline in manners? There are many answers. It could be the rise of permissive parenting and the lack of teaching mutual respect in the home. It could be the lack of respect parents show children which translates to aggressive behavior with their peers and in the public.

It could be the corrosive modeling of violence, aggression and profane dialogue in our poplar media and music. It could be the rise of selfishness and individuality in our society where there is less emphasis on the concerns for the feelings of others and community life. It could be a reflection of how self-important we feel we are and how our own needs are paramount over others.

It could be that the time-crunched lives we lead and the hurry we are in to do too much leaves little time at the margins to pay attention to the needs of those around us. It could be the super-competitive and materialistic environment we are in promotes a "me first" attitude to get what we need or what we have been taught to want. It could be overcrowding in cities where people's more loutish behavior can be expressed in anonymity.

It could be a lot of things. Add your own theories to the list.

What can be done? We can individually be examples of concern, kindness and respect in society. If we all made it a point to be more considerate, it would improve the social environment as surely as not littering improves the physical environment.

The concept of random acts of kindness is appealing. The good we do multiplies as others follow our lead. A smile is contagious. Please, thank you and other expressions of appreciation and concern give a needed lift to a world too short on kindness. We can unclutter and slow down our lives enough so we can be aware of the needs of people around us.

Parents need to be loving and respectful of each other and their children. Children learn respect for authority in the home. Training a child in manners, morality, respect, and concern for others starts in late infancy and is an unending job until they are age 18 and beyond.

A teenager who learns polite language and has good manners with adults has a huge leg up in the world of job hunting and favorable impressions. They also have the basis for having good friendships, marriages and pleasant relationships in the workplace.

Miss Manners can't rescue civilization all by herself. She needs some mannerly people to join her cause. It is the polite thing to do.