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The 69%

I like to start seminars by asking participants an easy question (or at lest I thought it was an easy question until recently): Are Americans ruder today than twenty or thirty years ago?

When AP/IPSOS polled Americans on this question, 69% answered that, yes, we are ruder today. I think that percentage accurately reflects general opinion because when I ask that question, lots of hands shoot up around the room. I rarely get push back on the issue.

Except once. Last week, when I asked that question most of the hands in the room went up. But then one vocal young woman said, "Absolutely not!" Her reasoning was that the increased awareness of rudeness and the frustration people feel about it had led to people treating each other more pleasantly recently. Simply put: The public discourse about civility in America had had a positive impact on how we treat each other. And, she pointed out, thirty years ago in the 1970s and 1980s, her perception was that people really had been self-centered and rude in ways that they weren't today.

I haven't changed my mind about how I would answer the question, but her sincerity and conviction were quite impressive. When I consider this question, I focus on two reasons why I think we are ruder today:

  • Technology has introduced new means of communicating with each other. As a society we're still struggling with what actions are perceived as rude when we use digital devices. Initially, with the advent of cell phones, people were annoyed and considered it disrespectful when someone answered a call while talking face-to-face with another person. That particular faux pas continues to be committed by cell phone and smartphone users today. Smartphones have upped the rudeness ante as people now routinely interrupt face-to-face conversations to send a text as they keep a phone visible during a meeting or a meal so they can respond to it when a text arrives. They also focus on their phone rather than the people they are with to email, surf the web, and interact on social media.

  • The recession that started in 2008 has had a long-term impact on many people’s lives, adding stress to everyday living as jobs and income took a hit. Unfortunately stress leads people to act impulsively and rudely. Even more unfortunately, that’s the start of a vicious circle, as rudeness simply begets more stress which, in turn, leads to more rudeness and on and on.

What do you think? Are we ruder today than twenty or thirty years ago? If you'd like to register your opinion, please click here to answer our Emily Post poll hosted by Survey Monkey.

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