WHEN JEAN-PAUL Sartre wrote (in 1944) that there was no need for fire, brimstone, stake, and gridiron, insofar as “Hell is other people” [“L’enfer, c’est les autres”], he anticipated the dawning of the age of bad behaviour by several decades. Rudeness, often of the most shamelessly flagrant variety, is endemic nowadays, as ubiquitous as the air, and just as apt to leave us gagging. The words “I’m sorry” have become even more endangered than their close kin, “Thank you,” replaced, alas, by a distressing proclivity, even among the very young, to proffer an indignant “Eff-off!” over every real or imagined slight.
Too many of us occupy virtual bubbles in public spaces, regaling captive audiences, in places like commuter trains and supermarket queues, with both inanities and the most intimate details of our private lives as we converse in decidedly unhushed tones on our ever-present cellphones.
[pullquote]Meanwhile, customer service is as dead as the proverbial doornail, conveyed to its not-so-peaceful final rest by automated switchboards, the cash-bots that have stealthily replaced bank tellers, offshore help-desks manned by minions. Is it any wonder that the mantra of our age has become, “Talk to the hand, coz the face ain’t listening?”
For ours is an age of “social autism, in which people just can’t see the value of imagining their impact on others, and in which responsibility is always conveniently laid at other people’s doors.” That’s the view of the bestselling British columnist Lynne Truss in her mordantly funny book. Never has righteous indignation been offered in such droll terms.
The author’s pet peeves are ones many of us will grasp to our bosoms in grateful recognition: “I can’t stand people talking in the cinema. I can’t stand other people’s cigarette smoke…. I am scared and angry when I hear the approach of young men drunkenly shouting. I can’t stand children skateboarding on pavements, or cyclists jumping lights and performing speed slaloms between pedestrians, and I am offended by T-shirts with ugly Eff-off messages on them.”
Why do manners matter? Why, because of their moral dimension, of course. “Manners are based on the ideal of empathy, of imagining the impact of one’s own actions on others.” If we all remembered to show that rudimentary consideration for others, what a wonderful world it would be.
John Arkelian is a writer, professor of media law, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.
Copyright © 2009 by John Arkelian.