Putting Politeness in Perspective

Sometimes it seems as if life is a rude cross between beer commercials, TV reality shows, cell phone abusers, and the neighbor's demon children.

"When people do polls," said "A Short History of Rudeness" author Mark Caldwell, "again and again they come up with 70 or 80 percent of Americans saying they believe we're getting ruder."

"The repercussions are so deep because our responses are emotional," said Deborah Tannen, who has written extensively on human relationships. "When you think you're being snubbed, what does that mean? It means your 'humanness' is not being acknowledged. When you feel you're being imposed on, your reaction of 'Give me some space' is so automatic."

Courtesy's Courtly Origins

You can still find etiquette classes, which have been the traditional prescription against rudeness. Maria Joyce teaches Modern Manners for Children and the ABC's of Table Manners for the Protocol School of New Jersey.

"When we talk about table manners, we're not necessarily talking about which fork to choose," she said. "We're talking … the manner in which you walk in, how you order your food, how you proceed through the meal, the conversation that you make at the table, whether it's appropriate or not … all those things tell people everything about you."

Why do people care so much? Many rules we ascribe strictly to social protocols have practical origins. It used to make a difference how you used your fork because in medieval times choosing a fork reduced the number of rude knife fights around the king's dinner table. People with good breeding knew that.

The word "courtesy" evolved from "court" and the manners that were practiced at a monarch's insistence.

Etiquette books codified manners and also catered to social climbers. "The upper classes were trying to patrol their borders and make sure that the newly rich didn't cross," said Mark Caldwell. "And etiquette manuals, some people argue, were a result of those people who wanted to enter these exclusive precincts, wanting a guide as to how to do it."

People have complained about rudeness at least since Homer described the "obscene swagger" of Penelope's suitors in "The Odyssey." "Any man of sense who chanced among them would be outraged seeing such behavior."

"There is a quote from Socrates in 400 B.C. saying that the young are terrible," said Lynne Truss, author of "Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door." Among the philosopher's complaints, according to Truss: "They don't sit at table properly. They call you by your first name. They have no respect for their elders. So this is clearly something that has been complained about forever."

From Party Poopers to Phone Fears

On the other hand, it's eye-opening to see how our definitions of rudeness have changed. It wasn't always considered rude to spit in public. The Renaissance scholar Erasmus said, "It is unmannerly to suck back saliva."

Mark Caldwell cited the chronicled holiday behavior of some 16th-century German aristocrats who pelted each other with dog droppings. That was considered festive, not rude.

And while many people today are offended by cell phone use in public places such as restaurants, a hundred years ago social arbiters worried that the telephone would become an instrument of rude behavior. "It was a completely new technology ... he idea of talking to someone at a distance," said Caldwell.

"And simple things that we take completely for granted -- like what you say when you pick up the telephone -- 'Hello' -- took a major period of discussion and negotiation to arrive at. It caused a huge panic among parents because dating behavior had been very carefully controlled in the United States in the 1880s and '90s … There were a number of articles written about 'how do we control youth in the era of the telephone.'"

Are We Hard-Wired to Expect Respect?

What we consider rudeness differs according to era, class, culture, gender and region.

"If you come from, say, the northeastern part of the United States … when you're listening you need to show you're alive," said Deborah Tannen. "You need to talk along. That's the way you show you're interested. But in many parts of the United States if you talk along, that's rude, that's interruption. Now, we all agree interruption is rude. But we don't agree on what constitutes an interruption."

What people largely have in common is the deep, negative reaction to what they consider rude.

"Rudeness is not something people take lightly," said Caldwell, "and that almost seems to be hard-wired into us."

"When you feel that the people you are dealing with day to day don't have manners, it gives you the feeling that the world is somehow coming apart," said Tannen. "It makes you feel that everything is out of control."

There are periods in history when the feeling that rudeness is pervasive grows more intense -- such as now.

"Questions tend to come up during periods of change," said Caldwell. "Periods of immigration, periods where technology transforms the way we live, periods where there's a big population explosion, so there are more people encountering each other on a daily basis. All of those kinds of situations, I think, create a shift and … a reinvestigation of manners and what they are."

"I do feel that we're all a bit at sea," said Lynne Truss, "with mobile phones, with e-mail, with the way we're treated when we call a company and the company puts us on hold and makes us go through a great rigamarole of pressing this, pressing that. I keep thinking, now this is, this isn't quite fair, you know. There is a feeling that people aren't meeting you halfway."

The British statesman Edmund Burke placed manners on a par with laws. "It's almost as if laws aren't necessary if people start instinctively behaving in ways that don't tread inordinately on each other's turf," said Caldwell.

The bottom line is, rudeness seems both dehumanizing and threatening, whether you play by the rules of a Victorian snob or a modern street gang. Manners are what bind people.

"No matter how strange, no matter how violative of normal human morals a group or an activity may be, there's a manners code," said Caldwell. "I think there's probably etiquette in Hell."