Aggravating circumstances: A recent study took a look at the state
of civility in America – and discovered an increasingly rude and disrespectful
Aggravating circumstances: A recent study took a look at the state
of civility in America – and discovered an increasingly rude and disrespectful
Tell the truth – how many rude people have you encountered
today? Be even more honest – how many times have you found yourself reacting
with disrespect toward someone else?
If the answer is “not often,” consider yourself lucky
– or maybe the day is young. In case you have not noticed – America
is getting downright rude these days.
“We face a dilemma,” acknowledges Deborah Wadsworth,
president of the Public Agenda group. “Daily life … appears to be littered
with unacceptable behavior, which has grown worse over time and shows no sign
of abating on its own.
“The concept of a tipping point – that
moment in an epidemic when it reaches a critical mass – probably is an
apt description of what weve come to in terms of our incivility and disrespect
for one another.”
In other words, the situation is critical.
Wadsworth is not just speaking from personal opinion. Her Public
Agenda group recently conducted a comprehensive study of the state of civility
in America. The conclusion of “Aggravating Circumstances: A Status Report
on Rudeness in America” is undeniable – disrespect and inconsiderate
behavior is on the rise in almost every area of daily American life.
In essence, the nation is losing its “civil”-ization
– and the fallout of the loss could be devastating.
“How people treat each other in their daily interactions
– whether they take steps to be respectful of one another, whether they
are willing to moderate their own desires and comforts to accommodate the needs
of others – seems to us to be profoundly important and indeed central to
the definition of a civilized society,” the Public Agenda study
“Most human enterprises proceed more smoothly if people
are respectful and considerate of one another, and they easily become poisoned
if people are unpleasant and rude.”
While individual surveys have hinted at such a coarsening of
the nation in recent years, the Public Agenda study took a more encompassing
Public Agenda was founded in 1975 as a means of helping the
leaders better understand the publics point of view and helping average
citizens understand critical policy issues. In this instance, Public Agenda
researchers examined past surveys, conducted one-on-one interviews with a host
of persons and held focus group sessions around the country. They also conducted
a survey of 2,013 American adults early this year.
“If this study shows anything, it shows that few people
can count on being consistently treated with respect and courtesy as they go
about their daily lives,” researchers emphasize. “The cumulative social
costs – in terms of mistrust, anger and even rage – are all too real
The study offers six key findings.
Americans say that disrespect, lack of consideration and rudeness
are serious, pervasive problems that affect them on a personal gut level. People
acknowledge that Americans behavior has improved in some areas, such as
the treatment of racial and ethnic minorities and the disabled. But in many
areas, Americans say they are witnessing a deterioration of courtesy and respectfulness
that has become a daily assault on their sensibilities and the quality of their
The numbers are clear. Seventy-nine percent of Americans surveyed
say a lack of respect and courtesy is a serious problem in society and should
Events make it just as clear. The study cites instances of
arguments spun out of control and ending in violence, as in the case of Thomas
Junta, who killed a fellow father after getting into an argument at their kids
hockey practice earlier this year.
“Few would claim that rude behavior was the ultimate cause
of (such) incidents, …” the study acknowledges. “But disrespectful
talk and aggressive posturing can clearly cause minor incidents to spin rapidly
out of control to the point where brutality becomes unexpectedly possible.”
Indeed, such incidents serve as a warning sign “that Americans
are having serious trouble in terms of how they treat each other in public,
…” the study cautions.
“Only 13 percent say that people are basically treating
each other with enough respect and courtesy these days. … Things have
gotten so bad that some (people) … respond with shocked gratitude when they
are treated nicely.”
Indeed, 41 percent of those involved in the study confess that
they have acted in disrespectful ways themselves.
And all the rudeness is having an impact.
Fifty-two percent of Americans say incidents of disrespect
tend to stay with them for some time and are difficult to shrug off. Indeed,
37 percent say they have been so affected that they have thought about moving
where people are nicer.
“What truly bothers (people) is not questions such as
which fork to use with the salad,” the study explains. “Its
not a matter of better etiquette.
“It is closer to what (author) Stephen Carter … said:
We tend to think about civility as being about manners, … he said.
Id like to think of it as something larger, that civility is the
sum of all of the sacrifices that we make for the sake of living together. And
one of the things I think were losing in America today is the sense of
… going the extra mile, doing something we dont have to do that the
law doesnt require of us in order to help someone elses life be
a little better. ”
Americans say the way they are treated by business and customer
service employees is frequently exasperating and sometimes even insulting. Too
many workers, they complain, are careless, apathetic and unhelpful. Almost half
of those surveyed say that they have walked out of a business specifically because
of bad service, and the number is even higher among affluent Americans.
“When youre in a store or restaurant, you expect
a certain amount of consideration – youre spending your money and
youre expecting someone to at least be kind,” the study says.
However, the truth is that behavior is worsening in businesses
as well – on both sides of the equation.
For instance, 46 percent of persons surveyed say they have
walked out of a store in the past year because of bad service, while 77 percent
say it is all too common for me to see salespeople acting like the customer
is not even there.
At the same time, 74 percent of those surveyed say they also
often see cutomers being rude or disrespectful to sales help or to people in
The telephone is an especially frustrating experience when
it comes to business, Americans say. Ninety-four percent say it is “very
frustrating to call a company and get a recording instead of a human being who
can answer my question directly.” And 77 percent call telemarketing calls
“a ruse and pushy way for companies to do business.”
The study notes that businesses that do treat customers well
rate high with them. “When service people go the extra mile for their customers,
it seems to leave an unforgettable impression, …” it notes. “(But)
to win a customers loyalty, courtesy and respect have to be sincere, not
just lip service.”
If Americans are exasperated by the way that businesses and
government agencies treat them, they are equally disenchanted with the behavior
of many of their fellow citizens. Majorities of Americans complain about inconsiderate,
even dangerous drivers; rude cell phone users; and a virtually ubiquitous onslaught
of profanity and coarse language.
Persons exhibit high levels of frustration at the rudeness
they encounter each day – perhaps because they have so little recourse
for changing it, the study notes.
Driving evokes the most passionate response. Overall, 58 percent
say they often see aggressive and reckless drivers. Sixty-four percent say driving
courtesy has gotten worse. Sixty-two percent say improvement is needed. And
66 percent say reckless and aggressive drivers bother them a lot.
In addition to driving, the study notes that Americans have
grown tired of cell phones and how they are used in public – and language
and how it is used.
Forty-nine percent say they often encounter people who use
their cell phones in a loud or annoying manner in public areas. Forty percent
say such behavior bothers them a lot.
Meanwhile, 44 percent of persons say they often see people
who use bad or rude language out loud in public – and 56 percent say it
bothers them a lot.
In an interesting side note – most Americans (64 percent)
still say it always is wrong to use Gods name in vain during ordinary
conversation or when one is angry.
However, there is a definite geographical skew to the majority.
For instance, 76 percent of persons in the South say it always is wrong, while
just 65 percent of persons in the Midwest and 56 percent of people in the West
agree. Only 50 percent of those in the Northeast say the same.
Overall, the trends are troubling, the study concludes.
“If one steps back to look at the range of locations in
which Americans live, work and travel, the mathematics of incivility are disturbing,”
it notes. “If you dont face it at work, theres a good chance
youll face it during your commute to work; if you dont face it in
your immediate neighborhood, theres a good chance youll run into
it going to dinner or at the movie theater.”
Americans are particularly concerned about discourteous and
disrespectful conduct of children, and they hold parents primarily responsible
for this phenomenon. People say that too many parents dont invest the
energy needed to teach their children good behavior, and that too often they
fail to set a good example themselves. But even when parents try hard, Americans
say, social forces – especially in popular culture and the entertainment
media – routinely undercut their efforts.
Americans especially are upset at how rude and disrespectful
behavior is being manifest in kids, the study notes.
In the Public Agenda study, only 9 percent of those surveyed
say they see kids in public respectful toward adults. Thirty-nine percent say
things could be somewhat better in that area, while 52 percent say things should
be a lot better.
Americans especially appear concerned about the language kids
use, with 75 percent saying parents need to teach kids that “cursing is
always wrong” and 62 percent saying kids should be taught to address elders
as “sir” or “maam.”
Part of the problem may be the examples being set, those involved
in the study acknowledge. Indeed, only 19 percent of adults claim “never”
to curse. And 71 percent of persons say they saw parents yelling and screaming
at others duringkids sporting events last year.
All in all, 84 percent of persons surveyed say “too many
parents are failing to teach respect to their kids.”
Sixty percent say negative role models also are a major cause
of rude behavior on the part of American youth.
The time has come for child advocacy groups and others to address
the problem, the study insists. “Parents and non-parents, teachers and
students, are more than willing and ready to talk about the problem. (And) To
cede the conversation to daytime (television) talk shows is to diminish –
and ultimately trivialize – public discussion of the issue.”
Americans point to a confluence of different factors to explain
the deterioration of courtesy and respectfulness in todays world. In part,
they say, too much crowding, too much anonymity and the pressures of fact-paced
lives invite rude behavior, and then rudeness begets more rudeness. Other explanations
point to the times we live in and the values we live by – a declining sense
of community, offensive and amoral entertainment media and an overall rise in
selfishness and callousness.
Persons involved in the Public Agenda survey offer a range
of reasons for why the nation has become rude.
One is that people simply have so many obligations and so much
to do that courtesy often is an afterthought. Indeed, 61 percent of people admit
they sometimes are so busy and pressed for time that they are not as polite
as they should be.
Overcrowding is another reason cited, while 62 percent of people
also cite an overall decline in morals and values in American society as a whole.
(See accompanying box)
And while most people say they are reluctant to challenge rude
behavior, 45 percent acknowledge that the fact fewer people are willing to question
it is a major cause.
Interestingly, when someone is rude in a public area, 20 percent
say it is best to let them know they are doing something wrong, 42 percent say
it is best simply to walk away, 36 percent say it is best to treat them “especially
politely in the hope that they learn by example.” However, 53 percent say
they are most likely simply to walk away.
Attitude seems to be a key, the study suggests.
For instance, 69 percent of people say they are less likely
to be nice when someone is rude and impolite. At the same time, 92 percent agree
that “respect and courtesy are contagious – the more people do it,
the more it spreads.”
The finding offers an interesting possibility, the study notes.
“The possibility of looking at civility – and incivility – as
epidemics driven by contagion is also tempting, …” it notes. “If
these things are so catching, the actions of even a handful of citizens in a
given setting can make a difference.”
The shock and loss of September 11 changed the behavior of
Americans for the better, most people believe, but they also suspect that the
change will be relatively short-lived. Many expect that well soon return
to business as usual, if we havent already done so.
In general, a strong majority of Americans (74 percent) agree
that people in this country became more caring and thoughtful toward one another
after September 11 events.
They also agree that Americans came to appreciate their country
more (84 percent) and that politicians put aside partisanship to pay more attention
to what was good for the country as a whole (55 percent).
But will it last?
Thirty-four percent say the caring and thoughtfulness will
last a long while, while 46 percent say it will linger just a few months and
18 percent say it is over already.
Interestingly, people think the patriotism has more staying
power. Fifty-four percent of persons say it will last a long time, while 38
percent say it will end after a few months and 6 percent say it already has
The political arena fared the worst. Thirty percent say bipartisanship
will last a long while, while 45 percent see just a run of a few months and
23 percent say the run is done.
All in all, the lasting fallout of September 11 still is being
determined, the study notes. It cites observers who say the country faces a
rare opportunity for civic renewal.
Even so, most Americans seem to be taking a “wait-and-see”
approach – “more than willing to acknowledge something good happened
but doubting that it will take root.”
Overall, the results of the study were not totally surprising,
Wadsworth says. “(But) What we did not anticipate was the level of unhappiness
expressed by those interviewed for this study – and their honest appraisal
of their own behavior – admitting that they themselves are frequently guilty
of the transgression that most upset them in others.”
Meanwhile, the key question remains – what are people
willing to do to improve the situation, Wadsworth adds.
“It is … a situation which we appear to have grown accustomed
to and, despite our collective grousing, a situation we appear to be tolerating,”
“Surely, it is not a problem without a solution.”
There is precedent for change, Wadsworth suggests. She cites
the changes in attitudes and behavior the country has seen toward African Americans,
the handicapped and even public smoking. “No one would deny that America
has made progress,” Wadsworth points out.
“(But) It will take significant individual and collective
resolve to challenge this epidemic of rudeness..
“Surely, we can muster the effort, the focus and the creativity to reach
out in ways small and large to remedy this situation, …” Wadsworth concludes.
“We undoubtedly have the capacity to imagine that circumstances might be
otherwise. Perhaps, it comes down to whether or not we have the will to change
our attitudes and modify our behavior so that we no longer lose our cool and
behave with utter disrespect for others.”