If the reputational cost of bad manners isn’t enough to encourage decorum, how about having to pay an extra $8 for a coffee?
A café in France recently made headlines for issuing a price scale based on patron etiquette: “Hello, one coffee, please” was listed at the usual price, while the more blunt “One coffee” was advertised at a premium. Though the sign was designed to make a point, people’s enthusiastic reaction to it is sparking renewed debate about the decline of civility.
Even here in Canada, where politeness is a flywheel of national identity, surveys consistently suggest we’re becoming less courteous, more self-involved, and increasingly prone to boorish behaviour – whether in the workplace, in public spaces or on social media. The question is, can anything be done about it?
“The reality is that things have to escalate to a point of pretty significant severity before a court is going to address it,” said Garry J. Wise, a Toronto-based lawyer. “It’s very, very difficult to enforce (civility) in the absence of an ongoing pattern.”
Internationally, however, that’s not the case.
Prone to road rage? Best not drive in Germany, where disrespect is punishable by law.
Germany’s so-called “insult law” not only criminalizes hate speech but also broad conduct showing disrespect for another person – including flipping someone off in traffic. In France, the state-owned railway tasked a team of “polite police” with cracking down on rude passengers after noting a 25 per cent increase in traveller complaints. And inSingapore, a person can be fined for everything from spitting on the sidewalk to not flushing a public toilet.
The lines are greyer in Canada, said Wise, with the onus largely falling on individuals and organizations to impose decorum.
“The willingness of an employer to jump in will vary from workplace to workplace,” said Wise, pointing to issues of harassment, sexism and racial slurs. “Sometimes, they’ll do what the law requires, but not necessarily for the purpose of solving the problem; it’s for the purpose of papering their file.”
Karen Cleveland, a Canadian manners maven, said the Canuck approach tends to be one of passive aggression as opposed to legal intervention. Take, for example, the time she forgot to silence her cellphone at the symphony and was met by “well-deserved glaring looks from other patrons.”
“We shame each other in a very Canadian, quiet, judgy way,” said Cleveland, who contends that etiquette in this country is headed down a scary path.
“Internationally, we enjoy a reputation as being a very mild-mannered people. Some days, that feels like nothing further from the truth – especially if you’ve had the pleasure of cramming yourself into a Toronto Transit Commission subway during rush hour.”
A 2011 poll of more than 5,000 drivers for the Canadian Automobile Association found 73 per cent of people believed road users were exhibiting more rude habits than in the recent past. And in a 2013 survey by B.C.-based Insights West, the majority of respondents had, over the previous month, witnessed public swearing (87 per cent), a child misbehaving without parental intervention (76 per cent), public spitting (72 per cent), and the use of cellphones during a movie (53 per cent).
Poor parenting was cited as a culprit by 93 per cent of respondents, followed by the influence of technology, at 84 per cent. Among Canadians 18 to 34, 70 per cent said someone had written something rude on their Facebook page, directed a mean tweet at them, or been disrespectful to them elsewhere online.
In recent years, however, a proactive approach to manners has begun to emerge.
To combat seat-kicking, phone use and other undesirable movie going activity, Cineplex relies on a pre-show campaign reminding Canadians to – in the words of spokesperson Mike Langdon – exhibit “the behaviour that’s generally preferred in theatres.” Read: Don’t be a jerk.
Prior to the Vancouver Olympics, volunteers participated in a kind of civility bootcamp, aimed at fostering such skills as attentive listening and conflict management. And looking to the nation’s bleachers, more than 65,000 Canadians have participated in Respect in Sport’s parent program, a behavioural training initiative – made mandatory by many sport bodies – designed to prevent infightingamong overzealous moms and dads.
Still, direct punishments for poor manners remain a rarity. In fact, Christine Porath, who has studied incivility for more than a decade, said the greatest costs – at least in the workplace – are suffered by the targets of incivility.
For instance, Porath finds 80 per cent of victims lose productivity due to worrying; 66 per cent incur a decline in performance; 63 per cent lose work time to avoiding the offender; and 12 per cent seek new employment. And the frequency is only worsening: in 2011, fully half of surveyed workers reported experiencing rude treatment at least weekly, compared to just a quarter in 1998.
“We’re not used to penalizing it,” said Porath, co-author of The Cost of Bad Behavior and an associate professor at Georgetown University. “We’ve always been about granting people liberties to be themselves.”
(Originally published on Canada.com, Jan 2014)