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Are Civility and Good Manners Waning?

A couple of years back, I was in my local post office sending off mail. There was a fairly long line of people ahead of me. Okay, nothing surprising here right? What was more surprising, or more arguably, annoying, was the fact that about less than five minutes later, a man walks in talking on his cell phone talking loudly in a very animated tone. There were three people separating him and me.

Some patrons seemed to be disturbed, yet amused by his insensitive behavior. This was evident in the way many people were looking and glancing at one another. His conversation continued on and got louder until he finally left the place. It seemed as if everyone sighed in relief.

More recently, last spring semester, I was in the middle of teaching my Honors U.S History Survey course when suddenly there was a loud and boisterous conversation that came out of nowhere. The ruckus went on for a few more minutes and I saw my students becoming increasingly perturbed by the noise. I eventually had enough, jumped out of my seat (much to my students delight), rushed to the door, opened it, shut it and confronted the rabble rousers who were standing in the middle of the hall carrying on in such a manner.

I politely, yet firmly informed them that I, and most likely, a number of other professors, were trying to conduct their classes and that if they desired to continue to converse with one another it would be more respectful if they went to the student center, outside or to an area where such conversation would be permissible and would not disturb or infringe on others’ ability to teach or learn. The students quickly apologized and went on their animated way.

While these are certainly not the most extreme cases of incivility that have occurred, the fact is that they are minor examples in what has become, according to a number of psychologists and social scientists, evidence of the growing decline of civility in American society. A non-scientific poll conducted by KRC Research interviewed more than 1,000 citizens produced the following findings:

  • 94% of Americans believe that a lack of civility is a growing problem
  • 67% believe that a lack of civility is a major problem
  • Less than 25% thinks it is a problem


When further asked to provide examples or reasons for the growing level of incivility in our society, participants cited the following reasons or institutions:

  • Talk radio ― 59%
  • College Campuses ― 40%
  • Social Networking Sites ― 43%
  • Road Rage ― 69%
  • Celebrities and entertainers ― 56%

While a number of the above mentioned examples are certainly valid, there are others as well. Professor P.M. Forni, a professor of Italian and literature at John Hopkins University who has dedicated the last decade and more to studying civility in our culture and author of The Civility Solution, addressed a number of factors issues that he considered problematic in our contemporary society in addition to the obvious talking too loudly:

  • Holding inappropriate conversations in public
  • Discriminating in an employment situation
  • Rudely interrupting conversations
  • Texting while driving
  • Disturbing live performances
  • Treating service providers as inferiors
  • Failing to say please or thank you
  • Using foul language in public
  • Checking your cell phone during live performances
  • Using technology in public


I would argue that no one would probably be able to successfully argue against the majority of these examples. No doubt some of us may be guilty of at least one or two of them ourselves. The last example is debatable. That being said, it was noted in a New York Times article a little over a year ago that a number of coffee houses, trendy bistros and other sorts of businesses have either prohibited or sharply curtailed the amount of time that patrons can utilize Wi-Fi or be active on their computers.

As someone who hangs out in coffee shops frequently, I can appreciate this level of restriction. There have been times when I have walked into certain coffeehouses and it looked like an office as opposed to a place where people are encouraged to relax, read, possibly interact with someone or others or just simply wind down with a beverage. Having multiple laptops clicking detracts from this possibility and intended atmosphere.

I would be less than remiss if I did not state the fact that there have been times in my life when I have been less than noble in my reaction to fellow human beings. There have been situations (not many) where someone or something has managed to β€œset me off” so-to-speak. In one case, I actually confronted the recipient of my vitriol and apologized for my behavior. It was the right thing to do. I am sure the same holds true for most of you reading this piece.

The fact is that all of us are human and will manage to make mistakes in our lives along the way. Imperfections aside, it is important that all of us, especially adults, make an effort to do our part to contribute to the making of a society that as civil as possible. After all, the children and young people in general are watching us.

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