Yes, thank you, we’re more courteous than ever

By John Lloyd
October 20, 2011

“Rudeness is just as bad as racism”: thus David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, when he was leader of the opposition in April 2007. It was a remark he should know better to make now: not because it is politically incorrect (usually a bad reason for doing, or not doing, anything) but because it’s crass.

Rudeness is being uncivil. Racism can be murderous.

But there is some excuse for the future Prime Minister’s confusion. The two are linked: the common denominator is respect. Racism is a radical lack of respect for an ethnicity which you have convinced yourself, or brought up, to despise. Rudeness is a milder lack of respect for others you meet in your journey through the day – or through life. Further link: one of the reasons why there’s less rudeness is that, in the past couple of decades, casual racism has largely disappeared from public discourse in most advanced societies — though some of that is because it has gone underground.

Less rudeness? Who says less? Don’t we all know that what’s the matter with kids today – and quite often, with their parents – is that they have no manners?

It doesn’t seem that clear cut. In the UK, where unmannerly behavior – the blast of stereos, the jostling of the elderly on public transport, the drunkenness and worse of young women in city centers on a Friday night – is a daily moan, a new report says it’s improving. It seems as counter intuitive as that other recent claim, by Steven Pinker of Harvard (in the 700-page The Better Angels of our Nature) that violence within and between societies has been falling for more than two millennia – and that we live in unprecedentedly peaceful times. Can we be living in unprecedentedly nice times?

Charm Offensive, from the Young Foundation earlier this month, argued something just as absurd to those who read only the headlines: yes, we are. That’s for a variety of reasons: one of these is that many people no longer express racism, and may no longer feel it: as one East End stallholder told the Young Foundation’s researchers – “we have to be polite because we’re so different”. This is an ideal: others less civilized than the stallholder see difference as an excuse to be rude. But it’s encouraging.

Courtesy – the root of the word tells you much – developed in Europe, in India, in China and elsewhere in part as a way of regulating relationships between often jealous and high-tempered courtiers, and to show respect for the “weaker sex” – women. From these courts developed rituals of manners, elaborate and seriously observed, which paid homage to position, femininity and rank: the masses were, in the main, left out of these ceremonies.

Much of our present definition of civilized behavior lies in the spread of manners over the last two centuries – as the masses received full citizenship and ordinary people saw themselves as equal to those to whom they had once deferred. Mannerly behavior ceased to be an aristocratic preserve – even as it  borrowed substantially from aristocratic tradition. So even if we hate to acknowledge it, the upper classes taught us manners – even if they behaved vilely to many of our forebears.

The decline of racism has been one gain for civility: the fuller equality of women is a more ambiguous revolution. Until our own times, men defined much of their own civility by being gallant: now, its display can offend as much as delight.

My Italian wife, who teaches in a university near Milan, wanted to discuss a professional issue with a male colleague, and emailed to ask for a meeting. The colleague, an older man, emailed back to say that “ladies like to be invited out: let us have lunch”: a response which drew indignant snorts, and a sharp reply that a coffee was fine, grazie. Though this may have been merely a creaking attempt at gallantry spiced with a little Latin machismo, it struck her as condescending, even arrogant, a bid to put her in her subordinate place. For the post-feminist generation, equality is to be assumed: when it isn’t, it’s a cause for anger, or irritation at least. Male-female civility can be a minefield for men who don’t think who meet women who don’t cut them some slack.

Social change doesn’t sum up the pitfalls: the even more rapid development of communications technology demands new efforts to be careful of others. When he was 16, George Washington copied a manuscript called “Rules of Civility”, attributed to a Jesuit priest writing at the end of the 17th century. More than half of the 110 rules – Jesuits are exhaustive – were about things not to do: number 18 advised you to “read no letters, books or papers in company, but when there is a necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave.”

Robert Desman, a Professor of Management at Kennesaw State University in Georgia – in a speech in Stockholm earlier this year – translated that to our times as “do not read or send text messages 1) when involved in a conversation, 2) in class, 3) during meetings, or 4) while driving.” The sheer fascination of hand-held computers which can give you friendship, organization, entertainment and enlightenment demands new rules of civility: and so far, these are slow in coming (whatever the Young Foundation says).

P M Forni, another professor, who created the Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore – a city where, as we learn from The Wire, the commodity can be in short supply – says that civility is “a code of decency to be applied in everyday life…fundamental to the making of a good, successful and serene life.” This is something like the core of it. It isn’t just being polite and it’s not just tolerating others. It’s not etiquette, which is small-scale ceremony, nor civic behavior, which are large-scale actions to underpin democratic and open societies.

It’s small acts of daily civility. It’s a hand to the elderly, a smile to the neighbors in the street, a chat with the check-out guy, a lowering of the voice when on the cellphone, a curbing of the irritation when cut up on the motorway, a thought that a mess left in a hotel room will add to the burden of an underpaid woman, or that a rant to a call center will be the straw that breaks a harassed operator down into tears.

It’s a reading of the contemporary scene and a hundred decisions a day to at least make its annoyances no worse – or better, make its opportunities richer, warmer.

Does this sound corny? Let’s hope so. In the matter of manners, that would be a compliment.

PHOTO: A sculpture of an angel with a broken wing is seen on the wall of music and spiritual room of the Detention Unit of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in Hague, in this September 20, 2011 photo. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

7 comments

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I find the optimistic claims of this article quite unconvincing.

Sure, life today is less violent than it has been during much of our history. It would be interesting to read a book on the subject written by a prominent historian. (As opposed to one written by Steven Pinker who of course is just a psychologist, not a scientific expert on history.)

But the development during the last 50 years or so hardly warrants any glowing optimism when it comes to the question of civility. We know for a fact that American kids have substantially lower levels of empathy today than a few decades ago. 40% lower empathy, in fact. (http://ns.umich.edu/htdocs/releases/sto ry.php?id=7724) I find it very unlikely that the situation here in Europe is very different.

And since a lack of empathy is the cornerstone of a broad spectrum of antisocial behaviours ranging from trivial rudeness to outright violence and criminality, a more credible claim about the current situation would be that the many stories in the media about rudeness and violence are simply based in reality. We are not victims of a mass hallucination: antisocial behaviours are de facto becoming more and more common, not less.

Posted by JamesDDG | Report as abusive

manners being passed on from the aristrocracy. nice insight!

Posted by Shukla | Report as abusive

It’s extremely sad to see someone utterly missing the time spirit. Today, it is of vital importance to call a horse a horse. Not to overlay everything with a thick layer of niceties and political correctiveness. White collar crime tends to be very polite.

What the world needs, dear Mr Lloyd, you’re not selling. It is called DECENCY. And I don’t care if DECENCY is rude.

And to refer what David Cameron has said, perhaps you should come down from the white tower and read some ordinary British newspapers. You will be amazed how sick the current UK situation is and how bad Mr. Camerons performancy is in solving it. Likely you need another guy because this one is sitting there for himself and only himself. While everybody smiles and acts civil.

Posted by FBreughel1 | Report as abusive

Mr. Lloyd’s essay, FBreughel1′s criticisim, and the angel sculpture (given where it is) make me wonder if there isn’t hope for us humans, after all. Is that reading too much into some words and a picture?

I guess that I come down on the side of FBreughel1′s DECENCY, but we can be civil between the times when we must be DECENT, and they are often one and the same.

Posted by LYSANDER_0 | Report as abusive

On the matter of male gallantry towards women: I have never observed women taking offence at it (perhaps I am not very gallant, but I think Italians are a bit different in their manners), but the evident equality of women now makes many old-fashioned rules of behaviour towards women seem pointless nonsense to men like myself. When women are no longer at a disadvantage, it is not gallantry but self-abasement to defer to them. That said, some courtesy towards women remains in the form of token gestures.
And it is too much of a sweeping statement to say that until your generation (I’m younger) men deferred to women out of gallantry. My grandmother was born into a mining community where deference to women didn’t exist. Women laboured as slaves to inconsiderate men who ironically were very proud of being “the workers”, and this was accepted as right and normal by the women as well as the men.

Posted by carbonel | Report as abusive

The only circumstance in which chatting to the check-out person is civil is when there is nobody in the queue behind you. I can’t remember the last time that happened to me. If there’s a queue behind you it’s downright antisocial.

Courtesy is no more and no less than the practical application of the Philosopher’s Golden Rule.

Unfortunately, this is a state of unstable equilibrium. Because I am courteous, I try to make sure that as little as possible of the noise I make permeates to my next door neighbour. Because she hears nothing, she assumes that the connecting walls are perfectly insulating and that she can make as much noise as she wants, whenever she wants. And of course, nothing short of outright discourtesy on my part will ever disabuse her of that notion.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

As an American, let me say that if you want more courtesy, look to Canada.

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive