Monday, April 1, 2013

When did Society Become so Inconsiderate?

A few years ago on a trip to the UK I came across Lynne Truss' marvellous little book: Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life (or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door).  The ultimate description of the frequent bestiality of each day's experience of your fellow man, this little book came to mind last week when I witnessed a new-to-me unintended consequence of Nanny State legislation. As in-hand cellphone use in a car is now illegal in most places, new vehicles come equipped with dashboard consoles that have Bluetooth hands-free connection. Using the car's speakers, this phone system can pump out the volume of sound at which your neighbour's teenage kid listens to his rap music. A truck pulled up next to me at the gasoline pump had its owner outside wrestling with the hose as he yelled back into the cabin as his contribution to a Bluetooth conversation. That brought a whole new level of decibels to those mobile phone dialogues one has no business overhearing!  


If you have ever confronted the types that perpetrate these sorts of atrocities in your daily life, you'll know the real meaning of rudeness. If you are lucky, you won't be threatened by physical violence. Being 6ft 2in and male, I occasionally forget that I'm also a frail old man. So far, I'm fortunate to have got away with only a stream of invective, often including a description of what the malefactor would really like to do to me for having the temerity to suggest that his behaviour is uncouth. 


Over a couple of miles of driving down in the fast-growing suburbs the other day, I had a well-known contemptuous hand gesture pointed my way by no less than three different speed demons of both sexes. Up here in the boondocks, where there remains some social consensus around what is appropriate interpersonal behaviour, folk are still mostly quite polite.


Social consensus is subtle and often hard to pin down. It derives over time from a common view of what each day is all about. As both the economic status and the ethno-cultural experience of society's members widen, this shared perspective becomes more and more elusive. Those who are naturally impatient and intolerant see no negative consequence to the outward displays of their contempt for the well-being of others. Fear of the outcome of confronting offence felt in the gentler segment of the population only emboldens those who see their neighbours as mostly an impediment to fulfillment of their own needs as they define them - constant right of way on the road, lightening fast service in shops, parking as close to their destination as can be, unfettered use of their phone in every public space... and so on. 


Those from countries that are politically dysfunctional, and where a form of 'law of the jungle' governs social interaction, have perhaps the hardest task in discerning what the social norms dictate in their new home. As immigrants they can come across as gruff and uncaring because they see have grown up to view each day as a battle and not an opportunity to grow closer to their fellows. Once experienced regularly, public rudeness can make even the most polite of us harden our view on how best to complete our daily round. In the end, we all suffer. 


America produces detailed booklets for its international businessmen and diplomats on the mores of the foreign societies they find themselves in. We here could do with guides to our national norms both for our domestic newcomers as they strive for full citizenship and for those native-born who seem to have lost a sense of why this is such a great country to live in.

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