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Road Etiquette and the Decline of Civility in America

In World
May 09, 2024
Angry curly haired Caucasian man driving on the road, raising his hand complaining, vertical image. Concept of road rage

Angry curly haired Caucasian man driving on the road, raising his hand complaining, vertical image. Concept of road rage (Sergio Caballero via Getty Images)

“Just chill!” The white-bearded man shouted from his lifted black truck, holding his hand out with his palm flat to make a stopping gesture. His truck was in front of me, eating up both the right and left lanes. I’d heard of double parking, but double driving?

Behind me, people honked, grimacing and shouting in frustration, as if it was my fault. I tried again to drive left around him, and he again swerved his car, forcing me to either pull into the lane with oncoming traffic, or return to my position behind him — so I yielded.

I couldn’t believe it. The dotted white line was going directly under this man’s truck, as he opined on, waving his hands in his car, explaining some unheard point to his passenger. A small and evil part of me wished I lived in a post-apocalyptic Mad Max universe, and had spiked wheels that I could clip the guys truck with — without consequence. But I resisted the urge to escalate, as road rage is not something to toy with.

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It was but another day in Florida, and America for that matter. His poor driving etiquette is a symptom of a broader decline in basic manners. But is it real? And what does it mean for our own life?

Things used to be quite different

A long list of social rules permeated 1950s America, and it was evident in the screenings shown in school, such as A Date With Your Family. In one clip, it zooms in on a 10-year-old girl at a dinner table, when a stately male voice, chimes in, “A daughter has changed from her school clothes to something more festive. Dressing up a little makes her feel, and consequently look, more charming.”

In another part, it continues, “The women of this family owe it to the men of the family to look relaxed and rested and attractive at dinner time.”

For ten more long minutes, it lists all the rules for every person in the family: the formality of dinner, showing up, what to talk about, how to behave, and what not to do. Though some of the lessons were valid, it sounded quite archaic, reminding me of my father’s childhood stories. He was expected to be at the dinner table at 6 PM in a collared shirt and if he wasn’t, there was hell to pay. The idea playing on a cell phone at this table would have been beyond vulgar.

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These strict rules began falling away in the 60s and 70s, as the anti-war and free love movements proliferated, opening up dialogue about sexuality and challenging notions of government power, marriage, and norms of behavior. This spirit of openness increased more with the AIDS epidemic, which introduced necessary dialogue about safety and intimacy, which also began normalizing homosexuality and the mere existence of gay men and women.

This was all part of a necessary and ongoing trend towards openness, and heightening notions of individuality. Perhaps the unintended casualty of these changing eras was the norms of civility.

Crossing the rubicon on politeness

In a 2022 study at the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Adriene Boissy and her team found that people across the globe have become pushier and less cordial than ever. It was pronounced during the pandemic, as people flooded into hospitals, with little care for nurses and doctors or even other patients. They pushed their way into rooms to get help with a minor cough while other people sat in the waiting room gravely ill.

And even beyond healthcare, their surveys showed that 76% of people dealt with incivility in everyday life each month, while 70% saw multiple cases of incivility at work each month.

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When I worked retail, it was quite common for me to be checking someone out while they had their headphones in with music blasting. I’d ask them a question about their purchase and they’d nod their head yes or no — when it wasn’t even a yes or no question. I’d repeat myself several times, only for them to sigh as they took their headphones out. And this was the least of the offenses I saw. Yet it’s little things like this that can eat away at your sense of goodwill each day.

Per professor Christine Porath, in her book, Mastering Community, there’s a general fraying of cohesion in society. Many people don’t feel a sense of community with their surroundings and peers. They don’t feel understood, connected with, or respected by anyone. And so they act accordingly — with a sense of bitterness about the world around them. In turn, they fall into their own world, not thinking outside of themselves.

For example, at the gym I go to, I regularly hold the door open for people who are coming in after me, or for those leaving just before me. I’ve lost count of how many times people have walked in and out without saying thank you. I’m not upset about it — but the shift has been noted.

Yet, strangely, while people are silent on saying thank you, they still feel compelled to overshare their own lives — in a way that can border on rude.

At work, I had a colleague, who within a few minutes of meeting me, began elaborating on his ex-wife’s drug addiction, and the court battles he was caught up in. Mind you, I didn’t know his name only five minutes before this, and I wasn’t particularly bothered by his sharing — but I could see how this might throw people off.

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On TikTok, many users have been sharing such intimate details about their lives that they are sometimes accused of “trauma dumping”, which is when you share painful and upsetting experiences with people who aren’t prepared to hear about them or who have even been warned these details were coming.

This isn’t a new problem

This offense at casual openness was seen in 1873, when the postcard was first introduced. Many thought it was strange and unthoughtful to be sending such a brief card, cramming in an important message with little consideration as you would with a letter, providing context and other information before sharing important details about your life or your intended’s. In 1907, a journalist wrote, “Some purist still regard postcards as vulgar, and only fit for tradesman.”

Similar complaints arose with the advent of talk shows, and people spilling their entire personal lives on the Maury Povich Show, which led to infamous chair throwing fights.

Fast forward to today, and we have trends like “sharenting”, the practice of being a parent, and sharing every inglorious detail of parenting to all of your followers on social media, which can be both harmful to the child, who isn’t consenting to this sharing, and to your own reputation.

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It isn’t my goal to sound like a cantankerous old man, or even to suggest we should rewind the clock to when we wore suits on airplanes and collared shirts to dinner. This was also when people had to hide their sexuality, subscribe to problematic gender norms, and when boys were told to swallow their problems and “Be a man!”

Yet I do hope we learn to embrace taking a pause, just a slight pause, before we overshare with others, act in self-interest on the road, or pass through a door without thanking the stranger holding it. Take a moment to think outside of yourself. I sometimes pause and say to myself, “OK — self awareness check. Don’t be obnoxious.”

And perhaps, conversely, resist the urge to draw harsh conclusions about these people, as I have, and remember the power of empathy, and to judge people by their intentions rather than their actions. And if that doesn’t work — choose to forgive and move on.

Manners still matter. Decorum and respect can carry us a long way — especially in a world where they feel so absent.

Sean Kernan·Yahoo Creator

I’m a former financial analyst turned writer out of Tampa, Florida. I write story-driven content to help us live better and maximize our potential.

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