The mathematical inevitability of rudeness?

Are people getting ruder? We all hear about the collapse of good manners -- a complaint often fraught with cultural implications ("coarsening of culture" is, I believe, one of the common terms). And anything with cultural implications quickly morphs into a political issue.

I don't want this to be about politics, because I see it as more akin to math.

Yes, math. I've been thinking that one of the downsides of the modern put-everyone-on-hold, no-one-has-real-authority-or-responsibility society is that we haven't yet dispensed with meme that "nice guys finish last," that politeness is for wimps and "in order to succeed, you have to be assertive." There is a fine line between assertiveness and rudeness -- so fine that I can't possibly hope to draw it, much less in a blog post. I can only give examples, but I have noticed that when the natural human tendency to do as little as possible is juxtaposed with a bureaucratized system encouraging people to do as little as possible, the result is that the polite are often simply ignored. As a Paddy Chayevsky put it, "Forgotten to death."

But lest anyone think that assertiveness is called for, beware of an emerging Catch 22. The same people (the do-nothing bureaucrats charged with running government and many large businesses) who see politeness as an excuse to do nothing because politeness is mistaken for wimpiness are very quick to "mistake" assertiveness for rudeness. Hence, those who have been polite but who get righteously assertive are greeted with an equally righteous sense of bureaucratic Entitlement to Do Nothing.

This leads to more rudeness.

I like to think the trick is to be politely assertive, over and over, and never become provoked. I once allowed myself to be placed on hold for eighteen hours by CNN when I called in with an uncomfortable question for a TV guest. (Their dime; not mine. I like to think that I elevated "politeness" into the realm of the surreal, although I acknowledge that the shrinks would say I was just being passive-aggressive.)

But after all, there is never any "entitlement" to rudeness? Or is there?

Sometimes I worry what happens to legitimate internal anger when it is constantly syruped over with politeness. Will it melt away without residual damage?

Am I playing the odds? Or just being a wimp?

posted by Eric on 01.23.07 at 08:46 AM










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