Everywhere we go these days, it seems we’re being told to mind our manners. In Calgary and Vancouver, the transit authorities have recently launched etiquette campaigns. Aside from not sharing seats with the elderly, apparently some people need reminding that the bus is unsuitable for toenail clipping. Movie theatres come with the suggestion to save your chatter and texting for after the show. Recently, in the food court of the World Exchange Plaza in Ottawa – a place populated by lawyers and accountants (and a Globe bureau) – a Thai restaurant posted signs warning, “Abusive language and behaviour will not be tolerated” because customers were getting “hangry,” as the staff called it, when asked to wait their turn or throw away garbage. As employee Jess Froment put it, “It’s just pad Thai. You don’t need to be so scary.”
So perhaps we are in need of people like Amy Alkon, a California-based advice columnist and radio talk-show host who’s made it her mission to take down rudeness by confronting and publicly shaming the boorish people she encounters. Alkon’s new book, which appears early next month and is cheekily titled Good Manners for Nice People who Sometimes Say F*ck, uses research into human behaviour to create tips for spreading civility. “If you are planning to meet the Queen, this book is not for you,” says Alkon. On the other hand, if you’d like your neighbour to stop leaving dog dirt on your lawn, read on.
Are we more rude today?
What’s happened is that we now live in societies too big for our brains. This is my theory about why we’re rude, and it’s based on work done by [British evolutionary anthropologist] Robin Dunbar, who figured out that our brains have a capacity for 150 relationships, and beyond that things break down. We can behave badly when we are around strangers, and we’re around strangers almost all the time. This allows people to do stuff they would never do to a neighbour. The guy that’s flipping you the bird in traffic is counting on the fact that he’s never going to see you again.
You write about rudeness as if it’s a crime.
Rude people are stealing our time, our good night’s sleep, our attention. If we feel, wow, we are being robbed, we can get mad about standing up to what is essentially social thuggery.
You don’t spend the book teaching how to set the table, or the proper way to write a thank-you note. Do you think those rules are old-fashioned?
Frankly, I don’t know how to set the table and I don’t care. People aren’t living like it’s Downton Abbey any more.
You argue that rather than the Do Unto Others rule, too many people today are living by the Up Yours rule? What’s the most egregious example?
Cellphone rudeness: that I am going to jam my life into your brain whether you like it or not. It’s privatizing public space; it’s stealing someone’s attention and doing it in the pharmacy line or on the bus – anywhere people can’t get away from you. Should people have to leave a restaurant, take their meal in a doggie bag, because you want to talk loudly about your bad day [on the phone] with your girlfriend?
You’ve made it a practice to speak to people who are being rude. How are you a jerk yourself?
One example is this women who was out in front of my house having a loud conversation on her speakerphone, yelling at someone. I was already having a bad day, and I came out on my porch and hissed at her – we can hear everything. This woman came up to my gate and yelled for five minutes straight. I yelled something at her. And I realized I just made this worse, I was such a jerk. So I went inside. And she vandalized my mailbox. That was really counterproductive. I find if I act like people are polite and will do the right and just forgot for a moment, and inform them of the facts, they are much more likely to change the behaviour.
I am not sure if you were the jerk in that scenario.
I don’t want to be controlled by another person. My goal was not to fight. The fact that you’re right does not make it a good idea to engage them on that level, which is basically that you want to hammer them.
You advocate Web slapping. But what’s the point of posting someone’s rudeness online if they never see it?
It has a general effect on society. People now know if they behave badly they can be shamed at a global level. Every person who helps remind people of this is doing the rest of us a service.
You don’t mess around. You posted pictures on telephone poles of guys peeing on your street. Some people might think that was extreme.
I don’t view it as revenge. I see it as taking positive action. It’s a refusal to be victimized, a refusal to live in a world in which people behave as if nobody matters but them. I covered up the private parts. But if I saw a sign like that, and if I were a guy who was going to whip it out and was going to make our neighbourhood smell like a giant bathroom, I would think twice about that. So yes, I do think it’s a deterrent, maybe not to everybody, but to a lot of people who don’t want to be photographed with their pants down.
One of my pet peeves: people who hog the sidewalk. How do you handle that?
[Visiting in Rome], I couldn’t cross the street because the traffic wouldn’t stop. My Rome-dwelling friend said, ‘Don’t look at cars as you cross. If they don’t know whether you can see them, they will stop for you.’ And he was right, it worked. I have tried this in Los Angeles, New York and Paris, and it works in all these places. When a group of people is coming toward you, you just look elsewhere – don’t make eye contact. They will move. I have never had anyone bump me when I have done this. It says to people, “Guess what? You are going to have to share. I am going to force you to share.”
Some etiquette norms have changed. You argue that even calling people on the phone, without warning, is rude.
You can text somebody to say you want to talk to them, and not have it interrupt their day. There are people exempt from this – your mother, someone having a heart attack. But for most of us: Be polite, and allow someone to contact you when it’s good for them.
Couldn’t we just turn off our phone?
Why should you have to do that? We need to behave courteously toward people rather than expect them to guard themselves against our discourtesy.
For people who don’t clean up dog poop, you describe a simple mailbox trick.
In a University of Newcastle [experiment], they posted eyes above a coffee-room honesty box, and people put nearly three times more money into that box. So if you put a picture of eyes on your mailbox – I am not guaranteeing this – it’s very likely you will cause people to pick up their dog’s poop (or, unfortunately, leave it on a lawn other than yours).
Vancouver is trying a new PR campaign to deal with rudeness on public transit. Are people really cutting their toenails on the bus?
I swear I saw a man biting his toenail on the subway. He was a businessman. Public space is shared space. There is a reason we don’t invite a bunch of friends over and have them come into our bathroom and watch us do our pluckings and cuttings and cleanings. But people just think the whole world is my space and everybody just better move over. All this rude behaviour is aggressively saying, “You don’t matter, and you just better suck it up, whatever I dish out.”
But you’re saying rather than expensive campaigns, it’s simpler than that: We just have to speak up as a group.
If one person tells somebody to pipe down, the other person might tell them to stick their heads somewhere unpleasant. But if another person says, “Yeah, man, I was bothered, too,” something incredible happens. Peer pressure will usually make the rude person stop.
What about fighting rudeness with kindness?
It’s really important to be a good neighbour. To look out for someone who is having a bad time: Shovel an old lady’s driveway. Bring in your neighbour’s trash can. If once a day you do something nice for a stranger, you will end up feeling better and fighting against the rampant rudeness we are all encountering.