Oprah recently focused her attention on rudeness. It will be interesting to see if this has a measurable effect. After all, some have speculated that her endorsement of Obama had a significant impact on the election and perhaps she can have a similar impact on behavior.
While older folks are fond of talking about how polite people used to be and how rude people are now, people have been rude throughout history. However, people have new ways of being rude these days, many of which involve mobile phones.
People are rude for a variety of reasons.
In some cases, it is mere ignorance-they do not know how to behave in a politie manner or are unaware of how their actions are seen by others. And, of course, rudeness can be a rather relative thing. For example, phone related behavior that strikes me as rude is actually perfectly acceptable to most younger people. Many people regard their phone as having top priority for their attention and they see this as perfectly fine. So, when a student whips out her cell phone to answer a text while I’m explaining her paper grade to her, I see it as rude and she probably sees it as socially acceptable behavior. It also helps explain her low paper grade-spending the class time texting tends to have that result.
Naturally, if most people consider a behavior acceptable, then it would be-assuming that manners are merely a matter of social convention. For example, consider the matter of what counts as proper dress-this changes with each generation.
In some cases, it is a matter of making a statement. By being rude, a person can attempt to show that she is superior (if only to herself). Or it can be an act of petty defiance. For example, students are often rude to show that they are defying the teacher or professor. Or perhaps to express their contempt for education and their devotion to their own ignorance. Of course, such rude behavior does make a statement of a different sort-it shows that the person who is rude needs to work on his respect for human dignity and worth.
Another common cause is the person’s view of the relative worth of other people. People tend to be rude to those they regard as being less useful, inferior, or unable to retaliate. For example, people are often rude to waiters and service people because they regard them as being mere waiters and service people. Of course, this could be seen as being on par with animal behavior: growl down and kiss up. Selfishness or a lack of concern can also play a role here. For example, while service people are often treated with contempt, customers are also often treated with contempt as well. Based on my experiences, the people who act in this manner could really care less about the business and probably think that having to work is a terrible inconvenience.
Naturally, there are no doubt other causes of rudeness.
Whatever its causes, rudeness is generally something that people should avoid.
One reason is practical: people respond negatively to rudeness and they remember poor treatment. Hence, they will be less inclined to help rude people and might take opportunities to retaliate. Further, rudeness tends to spread. As Socrates argued in the Apology, if a person corrupts those around her and makes them worse, she is likely to be hurt in turn. In the case of rudeness, each act of rudeness can lead to more rudeness as people pass it along. This will tend to gradually increase the overall levels of rudeness, which will affect us all.
In contrast, most people respond well to politeness and good treatment. While it is anecdotal evidence, I have found that most people are nice to me when I am nice to them. From a purely selfish standpoint, you will generally get more from people by acting nicely than by being rude. Hence, being nice is the preferable option in most cases.
Another reason to be polite is that it is the morally right thing to do. While there are many moral theories, one basic principle that tends to hold universally is the notion that you should treat others as you would want to be treated. Since people would like to be treated with respect, they should treat others that way.
Also, there are excellent arguments (such as those put forth by Kant) that people have intrinsic worth and that this worth should be respected. By acting politely we are acknowledging that worth in ourselves and others and thus doing the right thing. By being rude, we lower our own worth by trying to lower that of others. Assuming, of course, that people do have such worth.
Virtue theorists, such as Confucius and Aristotle, have also made a good case for polite behavior. Rude behavior is a vice and corrupts a person, leading towards unhappiness. This seems to be supported by studies of the physiology of rudeness-rudeness is, apparently, physically harmful.
So, be nice. At least until it is time to stop being nice.