As national crises go, it's overshadowed by matters of life and death. Still, a Public Agenda study finds 79 percent of Americans insisting that "a lack of respect and courtesy is a serious problem and we should try to address it." People get a steady diet of it: 88 percent "often or sometimes come across people who are rude and disrespectful," while 48 percent often see people who are "kind and considerate." Coarse language is a prime irritant: 44 percent often encounter people who "use bad or rude language in public." Nor do Americans shrug off all this rudeness: 62 percent said it "bothers them a lot," and six in 10 feel the problem has worsened in recent years. Why is this happening? The charts give an indication of how people see the issue. In bygone days, politeness was viewed as a form of enlightened self-interest: Polite behavior would be reciprocated. Now, it's seen by many as an invitation to abuse. At the same time, the aggravations of modern life are seen pushing people into rudeness, even if it's not their natural disposition.
In an often-quoted passage in The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu notes that "wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners." Unfortunately, he was not talking about American shopping malls. The study finds stores are a prime venue for bad behavior: 74 percent of respondents said they often see customers treating sales staff rudely. On the other hand, 46 percent have walked out of a store "because of the way the staff treated them."
What do people do if they witness rude behavior in public? Twenty percent said they "let the person know they're doing something wrong," while 42 percent "ignore it or walk away from the situation." But a wishful 36 percent said they "treat the person especially politely in the hope that they learn by example." Lots of luck!