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It’s a rude, rude, rude, rude world.

January 22, 2009

If you’ve ever been rewarded for an “Excuse me, but…” with a snarl, you’re not alone. Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, is also the 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. The six reasons Ms. Truss discusses are “Was That So Hard to Say?”, “Why am I the One Doing This?”, “My Bubble, My Rules”, “The Universal Eff-Off Reflex”, “Booing the Judges”, and “Someone Else Will Clean It Up”.

“Was That So Hard to Say?” laments the disappearance of such simple yet powerful words from our vocabularies as “please”, “thank you”, “you’re welcome”, and “sorry”. I see it myself on occasion. It seems that “please” and “thank you” are antithetical to the sense of entitlement people seem to have more and more these days. After all, why should I have to request what’s rightfully mine? Just give it to me. That’s right. Now go away. “You’re welcome” suffers a similar fate. After all, if someone thanks you, that’s just praise and flattery, isn’t it? Nothing less than what you’re due. As for “sorry”, well, that implies you’ve done something wrong, doesn’t it? What with our egos nowadays so artificially hyper-inflated (back to that whole entitlement thing), not only can we do no wrong, but if we do it, it’s right. How dare you take offense at what I did? Besides, if I say I’m sorry, you’ll just see that as admission of full culpability and use it to sue the pants off of me. I mean, I said I was sorry. Why should I have to pay your cleaning bill, too? That’s not my good suit.

“Why am I the One Doing This?” recalls a time when good manners was about meeting people halfway. Ms. Truss recounts tales of customer dis-service where helpful people have vanished and do-it-yourself automation has taken their place. She particularly rues the maddening labyrinths of voice mail trees that want her to input her 16-digit account number multiple times, but it’s not limited to that. She’s appalled by clerks and other service people who seem to have forgotten that it’s their job to help her. She often feels that she’s not a customer but an interruption or, worse, a new trainee.

“My Bubble, My Rules” is an allusion to a line from The Simpsons. Bart is confined to a giant plastic bubble for a while and decides that since he’s in his own proprietary space, he can make his own behavior and etiquette rules. Ms. Truss observes that people today seem to hold that belief wherever they go and have thus lost any consideration for others when out in public. And that really seems to be at the root of all of Ms. Truss’s complaints. No one seems to have any consideration for anybody else anymore. I run across this all the time, myself. People in public spaces act as though they have it all to themselves, both by rights and by facts. Their behavior is wild and obnoxious, disturbing anyone who’s hoping for a bit of peace. Yet when asked nicely if they could please keep it down a mite, they take mortal offense, as though you’re being maliciously oppressive. How dare you ask me to mind my manners? It’s a free country and I can do whatever the heck I like!

“The Universal Eff-Off Reflex” takes the “f*** you” response as representative of the entire mindset that has led to the death of manners and consideration. It’s an arrogance that Ms. Truss puts best:

A contestant on a quiz [show] who is told, “The answer to ‘Who wrote Pride and Prejudice?’ was Jane Austen” will not bite a lip and look embarrassed. He will say, “I didn’t know that because it’s not a thing worth knowing!” — and get a little cheer from the audience for sticking up for himself.

It’s a lack of respect that leads to a devaluing of anything not of immediate personal interest, and a resentment for being made aware that they failed to meet some standard.

“Booing the Judges” deals with loss of respect for authority. Since everyone feels entitled to whatever they want, and since (as Ms. Truss puts it) “it has become a modern tenet that success should have only a loose connection with merit”, it follows that those in positions of authority are no better on any measure than the rest of us and thus not only don’t deserve special respect, but often deserve special disrespect. She feels that egalitarianism has gone just a bit too far when young people are allowed or even encouraged to call their parents and teachers by their first names and to think of them as friends. It’s a dangerous blurring of the line that prevents a basic respect for authority from developing in the first place. After all, your friends aren’t the boss of you. They can’t tell you what to do.

“Someone Else Will Clean It Up” looks at the way people have abdicated responsibility for themselves, their actions, and the consequences thereof. It’s a bit like “My Bubble, My Rules” taken a few steps further. Littering is a good example of this. The thought process seems to be, “Someone else will clean it up.” After all, it’s not my job, so why should I do it? I’m not my brother’s keeper, am I? It’s this pervasive selfishness and thoughtlessness that, together with utter lack of respect, are at the root of “the utter bloody rudeness of the world today”.

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