April 3, 2002 -- Yammering on cell phones in public; driving obnoxiously; leaving people on hold; cursing and littering. Americans across the country say we are ruder than ever, according to a new survey released today.
Nearly eight in 10 respondents to the poll said lack of respect and courtesy is a serious national problem, and six in 10 said the problem is getting worse.
"They told us directly that it was a real problem," said Steve Farkas, a co-author of the study, which was produced by Public Agenda, a public policy research group.
"They're not talking about table manners; they're talking about treating people in a decent way."
The Effects of Sept. 11
According to the survey, fewer people thought rude and selfish behavior was on the rise than in the past, however. The study — which was conducted in January — found 61 percent agreed there was more rude behavior than in the past.
A January 2000 Gallup poll found that number to be 78 percent. A May 1999 ABCNEWS poll found 73 percent of Americans felt people's manners were worse today than 20 or 30 years ago.
The new poll found 74 percent of respondents said Americans were more thoughtful and caring after the Sept. 11 attacks, but only 34 percent said the change would last for a long time. Almost a quarter said the good feeling had already passed.
What's to Blame?
Survey respondents singled out a few reasons for our apparent increasing rudeness — particularly the impact of new technology.
"If you had to choose a new technology that has had an impact, it's the cell phone," Farkas said. "This really drove people crazy."
More than a third of survey respondents said they were subjected to loud and annoying cell phone conversations. They also emphasized road rage and rude drivers as a serious and growing problem.
People also blamed parents for not instilling courtesy in their children, and popular culture for encouraging rude behavior. A sizable number of respondents — 41 percent — admitted they were even sometimes part of the problem themselves.
The poll found some encouraging responses, too. People said that Americans were less rude toward the elderly and disabled, for example.
Nearly half said they "often" see people being considerate, and 64 percent described their neighbors as friendly and helpful.
An Age-Old Problem, But a Real One
People have complained about the decline in manners and an increase in rudeness for centuries, historians note.
"Concern about rudeness is absolutely perennial," said Fordham University professor Mark Caldwell, author of A Short History of Rudeness. "It's ancient; it never goes away."
In America, the Founding Fathers often discuss questions of etiquette and manners. Inventions such as movies and the telephone stirred fears of making the next generation more vulgar, or even depraved, he said.
Some thinkers have dismissed etiquette and manners as relatively trivial compared to serious issues of morality. Others have argued for the central importance of etiquette in maintaining a civilized way of life.
Defenders of the importance of politeness say manners govern virtually all of our everyday interactions, from dealing with co-workers to waiters to people we pass on the street, and are a reflection of the age-old precept to love thy neighbor.
"You're constantly in a world framed and guided by manners," Caldwell said. "They're the ways we relate to each other socially."
The authors of the Public Agenda study agree.
"It's about the daily assault of selfish, inconsiderate behavior that gets under [people's] skin on the highways, in the office, on TV, in stores and the myriad other settings where they encounter fellow Americans," said Deborah Wadsworth, Public Agenda's president.
C. Dallett Hemphill, a history professor at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania, said that false nostalgia does make people more likely to say society used to be more civil.
"We always imagine a better-behaved society in the past," she said. But that nostalgia does not mean real changes in customs and behaviors haven't taken place, she cautions. Hemphill is the author of Bowing to Necessities: A History of Manners in America, 1620-1860.
She attributes reports of an increase in rudeness to an increasing openness to different behaviors and attitudes.
"Today's celebration of difference in our society is liberating, but has possibly undermined consensus on good behavior," she said.
"People forget that manners are not insignificant."
Caldwell also stresses that manners are important, but he cautions against assuming rudeness is spiraling out of control.
"I think because [people] do worry, that kind of maintains manners," he said.
The Public Agenda study surveyed 2,013 adults by telephone across the country in January. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.