Saturday, August 9, 2008


Yesterday I mentioned the decline of manners in our modern age. I tossed it out sort of casually, but I’ve been thinking more about it -- what’s made us become so rude to each other, so abrupt and even derisive of the notion of being polite?

I think a lot of it comes from sheer numbers. In an age when there were fewer people, as there were a hundred or more years ago, or when we were more settled, manners mattered. We had to create stable societies and the individuals involved stood out more. Manners helped us form lasting relationships with people we’d spend large amounts of our lives with -- neighbors, colleagues, family members.

Nowadays, we’re all so mobile, and there are so darn many of us. Individual relationships matter less, or seem to. We often pick up and move every few years, and we change jobs with more frequency. Why inconvenience ourselves to put other people first, when those people will vanish from our lives in a few short years -- or even a few minutes?

Decades ago, New Yorkers had a national reputation for being rude, and I think that’s because they were at the vanguard of overpopulation. They displayed the abruptness that would later affect our whole society. (I personally don’t think New Yorkers are more rude than anyone else, these days, though some people still think of us that way.)

How can we encourage each other to really see the person in the next car, on the escalator or approaching on the sidewalk? To see them as an individual, and not some nameless jerk amid a horde of jerks?

(Photo: Williamsburg, Brooklyn, July 2008)


  1. I think you have to make a conscious decision to be polite and respectful to others. That is, until they give you reason not to be!

  2. What a great, provocative post!

    I agree that being packed into cities creates an atmosphere of anxiety which brings up angry responses in some people. But I think there's a cultural component, too.

    In Japan for instance there are tons of people smashed into the subways and filling the street, so how do they manage to remain so polite? It's built into their culture.

    American culture is a melange of many different kinds of manners. It's unclear how people "should" behave. Many of my WASP-y friends are aghast to hear the shouting and crying and insulting that goes on in Jewish families, but for Jews, that's normal, not rude.

    Maybe one of these days you'll get yourself out of the big apple, move somewhere were there's less density, less anxiety, and therefore fewer asses to contend with!

    Happy Saturday!

  3. This is a great post. I do think it is so true that the level of rudeness goes up as the density of population increases. I suppose everyone wants to be noticed or something like that.

    I find it interesting to observe how different cultures treat the idea of standing in line for something. In the UK, the line is sacrosanct. In Latin America, it is nonexistent. Here we just figure out some way to cheat and still appear to be in line.

    Lots of things to think about here.

  4. I don't know, self absorption, thinking we need some grand aspiration-- which is all about us, really and not others It's easy to forget all the tiny simple things in life, like kindness towards others, If we could see the connection to others, that is is not about me, me, me--manners and simply getting along with others might return. But I also find that 9 times out of 10 people are polite towards me. we tend to recall the frustrations in life, just being human I guess.

  5. I agree with Merle, I have to make an effort not to be self absorbed and look at the stranger as another human being, who might be rude because he's very depressed about something, or not well or just distracted or in a hurry.

  6. Barbara: I LOVED this line: "Here we just figure out some way to cheat and still appear to be in line." LOL!

  7. It all comes down to treating others as you would like to be treated, doesn't it?

  8. I agree with Tut Tut.

  9. There's usually one obnoxious person in any given line who makes us either angry / upset or more mannerly--depending on the day.

    I never understood mosh pits.

  10. ditto to tut's remark and observation!

    a couple more cents to add to the discussion. not only is there is a great deal of variation in how people behave towards one another but it's important to realize that what is being defined as 'rude' 'mannered' is also highly variable and flexible....

    I have found new yorkers quite polite.....

  11. When I am rude (on purpose) its usually with the idea that whoever I'm dealing with I will never have to deal with again...these days there are so many people like that that it tends to make you a little more apt to be brusque with....whoever.

  12. i loved barbara's comment too! i think theres quite a bit of that "cheating whilst appearing to be in line" in england too