Let's Resolve to Blunt the Edge of Rude America

In my world, there are too many signs that rudeness is on the rise. And it's not good for anyone's frame of mind.
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A picture shows the traffic on a highway in Lille on December 7, 2012 after snowfalls during the night. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture shows the traffic on a highway in Lille on December 7, 2012 after snowfalls during the night. AFP PHOTO PHILIPPE HUGUEN (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

How's this for a collective New Year's resolution: Can we agree to stop dissing each other?

To let each other change car lanes without risking an accident? To acknowledge each other with at least a nod in elevators? To stop texting and typing at meetings and in classrooms long enough to have a clue what's going on? To stop pushing past each other in lines?

In my world, there are too many signs that rudeness is on the rise. And it's not good for anyone's frame of mind.

"This is the Christmas Season. Hanukkah. When people are supposed to be nice to each other," my wife, Kathy, said in exasperation the other day as we watched yet another car cut off someone trying to get out of a driveway on Massachusetts Avenue. "Instead, everyone's acting like, 'I've got mine.'"

Or, "Get out of my way." The Saturday before Christmas, I was waiting for an opening to make a turn at a five-way intersection less than a mile from my house. It's a tricky left and, with my 5-year-old granddaughter buckled into the back seat, I waited for a clear opening. But my caution proved dangerous in its own right. First one, then a second car sped around me on the right and then turned left directly in front of me. It was lucky I saw them.

For the record, I'm not Grandpa Geezer behind the wheel. I grew up near New York City.

The next day we took our granddaughter, Devon, to Boston's renowned Museum of Science. We thought we'd check out the IMAX movie special, Santa vs. the Snowman. The theatre was crowded and we asked a woman sitting with two kids whether she might move one seat to the right so we could have three seats to her left.

"No, we want to sit in the middle," she said.

Not a problem. We slid into the row behind. A few minutes later, the usher asked everyone to fill in empty seats to accommodate the crowd. The same woman responded by putting her purse on the seat to her left. She wanted to keep seats empty on both sides.

Happy holidays.

One hint, I suspect, of what's fueling our societal aggressiveness became evident in the film that followed. The movie -- a holiday special for kids in an award-winning science museum -- was about a war between Santa and a snowman who wanted to usurp his status as deliverer of toys. It did have a happy ending. But in between, Santa, the Snowman and their minions fired all kinds of cool weapons at each other, knocking off each other's armies. Ha-ha-ha. Ho-ho-ho. Great timing after Newtown. America at its finest.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not blaming violence -- in video games, in movies and with real guns -- for all of society's edge, all of our bad behavior. A more widespread problem may be today's all-wired, all-the-time world, which plays a big part in the decline of basic manners -- a nod, a smile, an acknowledgment of someone else's humanity or at least their presence.

I teach at a creative and lively college of communication and the arts in the center of Boston. You'd never know that, however, from riding the elevators in my building. These are, shall we say, "intimate;" six people can cram in, inches apart. Yet on most elevator rides, no one talks, no one smiles, no one makes eye contact -- with anything, that is, but their cell phones. Those students not texting (and some who are) have in ear buds. Heaven forbid that they -- we -- should interact in any fashion with the people inches away.

Rudeness, today, has become hip, too, in meetings and classrooms. From what I can tell, carrying iPads into meetings as much an excuse to check out of the conversation as to streamline work. I've seen people reading and writing email at meetings with the college's top administrators. This kind of "I'm in my world" attitude carries into the classroom, too.

For the past two or three years, I've had to go to great lengths to patrol the computer labs in which I teach to get students off their keyboards and into the conversation. It would be nice if I could just ask once when, for example, we're critiquing a classmate's story. It would be, but it just doesn't work. Touching those keys is like scratching an itch for some.

Again. I'm not Grandpa Geezer. I won my college's teaching award five years ago. And even if I am rapidly becoming a dinosaur (wait, he's at the science museum), it's not cool for students to ignore their peers -- or me, for that matter.

When we move through life oblivious of others, everyone loses. It helps create the kind of environment in which a wingnut from the NRA can stand up and suggest we should put armed guards at every elementary school and in which our elected representatives do damned little other than attack those in the other party. Or perhaps all these scrooges are just more causes of our widespread societal malaise.

Here's what I suggest. If our leaders can't model civil and civic behavior, let's you and I try. Let's start small. The next time someone coming toward you is trying to turn left on a yellow light, stop your car. Don't run the red, as someone did Friday to me with both grandchildren in the back seat. When you enter a building, consider holding the door for the person behind you. Try saying good morning to someone standing beside you in an elevator. And if you feel compelled to be all-wired, all-the-time, don't use the technology as a weapon to shut off yourself off to those trying to engage you.

They're small steps, but give them a try. You just might feel less alienated and less angry in 2013.

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