The Culture of Rudeness

Tom Gannon

In April, as I write this, there’s been some discussion about rudeness in American society, with some 70 percent (I think it was) in a survey saying they believed we’re getting ruder all the time. Cell phone etiquette, or lack thereof, and aggressive driving are just two manifestations of the problem. We all have our own examples: sneering "service" personnel (it’s not just state employees anymore), line jumpers at the supermarket and elsewhere, telemarketers who won’t take no for an answer.

I’d been thinking about it from another angle as I’ve watched the architecture in my corner of the world change for the worse over the past few years, with modest-sized summer cottages razed, along with trees and gardens, to be replaced by mammoth two-and-one-half story monstrosities that turn their backs on the street (sometimes showing just a single window up high), although outfitted with lots of useless turrets and balconies overlooking nothing.

Monuments to themselves, a friend calls these; I think of them as fortresses. Usually the inhabitants, if you ever see them, are as friendly as the exterior of their dwellings. And of course, a large number of these people, when they venture out at all, remain distant behind the tinted windows of their proportionately outsized SUVs. When they shop, it’s no longer at a local shop but more likely at a Sam’s Club or Home Depot or Walmart, where they pay people (but not much) to "greet" customers as though they knew them.

We’ve become strangers, in other words, and it’s easier to be rude to strangers than to people you know. (A lot of rude drivers, for example, seem to check their attitude—or their nerve—when they leave their vehicles and encounter others in the flesh.)

Some time last year, I read a book called Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam, who uses the decline of bowling leagues as a metaphor for the disengagement of Americans in general from civic and social groups and from each other. Rudeness is one symptom, dwindling voter turnout another. Mensa regularly wrings its hands over static membership when the same problem, or worse, is faced by the Girl Scouts, the Jaycees, and bowling and basketball leagues.

Poor education exacerbates the culture of rudeness, but I’ve witnessed supposedly superior intelligences (as among Mensans) behave impolitely behind the impersonality of e-mail. Aside from that, one of the nice things about Mensa is its willing acceptance of disparate people who often only have success in test-taking in common. Of course, you can be a jerk and Mensan, too, but you’ll find the welcome cooling off in time—kind of the way rude people used to be sent the message in society at large.