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How To Get Back To Civility

By Mary O’Brien, M.D.

We all have blind spots about ourselves, but sometimes our self-image can border on delusional.  Seventy-eight percent of people polled believe that there has been a decline in civility during the past decade.  The other 22% were probably in a medically-induced coma.

The real shocker comes next.  Ninety-nine percent of people believe their own level of civility has remained constant.  So who are all those rude people out there?  Perhaps a brief self-assessment is in order.

Do you remember the last time you:

  • Sent a thank-you note (a real handwritten one)?
  • Let someone go ahead of you in a checkout line?
  • Waived another driver ahead of you in busy traffic?
  • Held a door open for someone else? (That’s called manners, not chauvinism.)
  • Offered to help someone struggling with boxes, bags, or packages?
  • Helped someone get his or her luggage in the overhead compartment of an airplane?
  • Helped an older patient in and out of a chair (as opposed to merely standing there and watching him or her struggle)?

There are countless other examples, especially in this age of narcissism.  Self-absorption is Cause No. 1 of the four major causes of rudeness.  This time of year, people talk about flu epidemics.  But “me, myself, and I syndrome” is a year-round epidemic.  Simply being unaware of other people or their needs is ubiquitous behavior these days.  It speaks to a failure of parenting and education.

That leads to Cause No. 2 of rudeness:  ignorance.  Manners and civility need to be taught, and no participation trophies are not awarded.  Civility is its own reward.

Cause No. 3 of rudeness is lack of character.  We don’t speak much about someone’s character these days.  It’s a serious flaw in our culture.  Character determines how any one of us behaves when no one is watching.  It’s our default mode of behavior.  Eric Hoffer said, “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”  It takes a strong person to be kind, gentle, patient, or polite.

Cause No. 4 of rudeness is simply being in a hurry.  It’s curious, but can you even imagine the spiritual giants of the ages being in a rush?  Granted, people like Moses, Jesus, and Buddha lived a long time ago, but no one could possibly picture their being frantic and frenetic.  As Emerson wrote, “Manners require time, as nothing is more vulgar than haste.”

Self-absorption, ignorance, lack of character, and haste.  These are the major causes of rudeness.  Maybe we could start to “reverse engineer” our way back to civility.  It would surely be worth the effort.