I was in a meeting this morning when the fellow leading the meeting said,

“Now we’re in Princeton, so of course there are a lot of Really Important People here today, and no doubt they’ll be getting Really Important Phone Calls, you know, conversations that could not possibly wait an hour until this meeting’s over. So, please, speakers, if you’re interrupted by a cell phone going off, would you mind just waiting quietly until the Very Important Person has finished their Very Important Call before resuming your talk? We wouldn’t want to disturb them.”


Well, we all laughed, and then dozens of people dove for their cell phones and press either ‘vibrate’ or ‘mute’. Bless them.

What a shame, though, that we have to be reminded to be civil. I know, I know, the whole cell-phone-screamer issue has been written about until I’m sure you’re as sick of hearing about as I am, yet still, the question I have is: why do we have to keep talking about it? Why don’t people understand what it means to be polite, to be a civil neighbor, to be a civil co-worker, and naturally behave accordingly? I mean, people who are older than teenagers, anyway. People whose brains have supposed fully formed and who don’t need to rely upon parents to tell them it’s impolite to grab food off another person’s plate, even if you do really, really, want it.

Dr. P.M. Forni, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, recently wrote two books: Choosing Civility, and The Civility Solution: What To Do When People are Rude. He also founded, and directs, The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins. I love this guy and wish everyone would read his books. He rightly, in my opinion, asserts that life is an experience of relating and connecting. He says: “being civil is both the decent thing to do and the expedient one. Civility and good manners are areas of human behavior where altruism and self-interest merge. Social skills are a precious asset: They allow us to enjoy harmonious social interactions as they strengthen social bonds. Strong social bonds are necessary for the building and maintenance of social support and also crucial to success at work.” Here, here.

I recently talked with a young friend who was made uncomfortable by a woman she knew quite well. This woman felt it was her right to offer my young friend an opinion on everything wrong with her. “You do this wrong, and that wrong and you should do this and why do you do that and your hair doesn’t suit you and the way you talk is wrong….” Yikes. The woman said it was her right to inform my young friend about all her faults because doing so was true to the woman’s “authenticity,” and that being true to herself in this way was her right.

But what about my young friend’s right not to be subjected to someone’s unasked for opinion? And so, my young friend eventually stood up for herself and said she no longer wished to hear the woman’s opinion unless she requested it. The woman was not very happy about it.

When you are rude, this is what I see and is how I picture all Hummer owners.

Sometimes, as above, incivility turns into abuse, but even when it doesn’t, even when it’s my neighbor blasting her stereo and hiring a DJ to scream into a microphone for hours on end, at such decibels that my closed windows rattle (oh, just for example), it points to a terrible, and in my opinion, epidemic selfishness. The guy with his feet up on the subway seat, or the one leaning against the pole so no one else can hold on, the woman tossing her gum carelessly onto the sidewalk, people who don’t pick up after their dogs, line-jumpers, drivers who cut you off…

The woman in the hairdresser who doesn’t care, for example, that I’m clearly trying to read a book, and the person beside me is grading papers, because her sudden desire to gossip and cackle like a drunken hyena precludes the desire of someone else for quiet.

Well, you’re being unreasonable, you might say. A hairdresser’s isn’t a library, after all, with no particular expectation of quiet. Okay. And if people did respect “Quiet, no cellphone” signs in doctor’s waiting room, train cars and airport waiting rooms, I would be more inclined to agree, but of course, they don’t. There was an interesting article in the Boston Globe recently by Neil Swidey, called The End of Alone — here’s what he says:

“Not long ago, I was sitting in the ‘quiet study’ section of my local public library when a middle-aged woman wearing an annoyed expression plopped down in the green upholstered chair next to my table, her teenage daughter in tow. She flipped open her cellphone and dialed her daughter’s therapist. After giving the therapist’s secretary her full name and slowly spelling her daughter’s — loud enough for every soul in that wing of the library to hear — she said, ‘We have an appointment for next week, but I want to know if he has any availability before that. She is really not doing well.’

“I looked up from my laptop, incredulous that a mother could be so blase about violating her daughter’s privacy, not to mention library decorum — and convinced that the therapist and the daughter must have no time to discuss anything besides mother issues.”

You have to pity not only Mr. Swidey, subjected to such a selfish, ill-mannered woman, but also the poor daughter. And what lessons is this mother teaching the daughter about manners, and concern for others?

I wonder what might happen if they talked to people who were actually in the vicinity?

I heard Dr. Forni, of the Civility Institute, talk on the radio about this and he said something like, “there used to be a time when parents taught their children that
it was impolite to chew with their mouths open. ‘Why?’ the child might ask, and the parent would respond, ‘Because other people don’t like to look at your bits of chewed up food.'” This begins to teach the child that someone other than he/she actually matter, and should, if you wish to have good relationships in the world, be taken into consideration.

Dr. Forni also provides a strategy for dealing with rude people. He calls it “SIR”. Imagine the jackass we all loathe on the train, yelling into his cellphone because he’s a Very Important Person. Here’s what you do:

  • State what the problem is. For example, if someone is talking loudly on his cell phone and it is bothering you, let him know he is bothering you.
  • Inform the person he is bothering you, but don’t berate him. Tell her, “When you do that, it prevents me from relaxing, and I would like to have the opportunity to relax. Do you think you could refrain from calling unless it’s an emergency?”
  • Request the behavior be changed. “Say it very calm with poise, and project an aura of power and repose,” Dr. Forni says. “The poised alternative is more effective in the long run.”
Of course, if he gives you the finger, there’s little you can do. No talking to some people. Perhaps if the sign had read “Be Polite, PLEASE”?

However, I actually tried this with someone sitting behind me in a theater — a woman popping her gum so loudly I thought she was letting firecrackers off under her seat. It worked and I found, speaking with a little humor, we managed to laugh about it and feel friendly toward each other. So much more pleasant.

Interestingly enough, when I lived in France I had a terrible time with smokers, since I am violently allergic to cigarette smoke (I tend to stop breathing and turn blue), and until recently they smoked EVERYWHERE. The French do love their cigarettes and more or less live by the rule of “Parce que j’ai le droit!” (Because I have the right!) which means essentially that they do what they want, when they want, where they want, and if you don’t like it, tant pis!, which I’ll leave it to you to translate. (Although in their defense they expect you to do the same, and are pretty damn tolerant.) Asking someone not to smoke in a restaurant was libel to earn you a barrage of insults in a way only the French can manage. However, if I said, “I’m terribly sorry, this is entirely my fault, and I am rather embarrassed to inconvenience you, since the weakness is mine, but I’m hideously allergic to smoke. Would you mind not smoking?” then suddenly (and almost always!) the person who had been a self-righteous individualist a moment before was full of concern for my lungs and happily ground out their cigarette, rightly feeling good for having taken someone else’s comfort into consideration.

The point is, that one’s ability to be civil, polite, and well-mannered seems to exist in direct proportion to how egocentric one is. If you really believe that you are a Very Important Person, nay, the Most Important Person, one whose concerns and desires matter more than anyone else’s, then why bother being civil? You don’t care. But I’m betting most people do care. They don’t want to be jackasses, they just don’t realize.

Perhaps those of us who are concerned with an increasing lack of civility, both public (consider Anne Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and whoever their counterparts on the other side of the table are) and private might think about buying a few of Dr. Forni’s books and leaving them on trains, planes, in restaurants, etc.. — optimistically sowing the seeds of a more civil society.

Oh, yes — we might (okay, I might) also try being a little more civil myself.

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