Signs of the times? Civility may be at all-time low

Published: Sunday, May 11 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah Highway Patrol trooper Roger Griffis talks with a driver on I-15 after stopping him for crossing three lanes consecutively.

Tim Hussin, Deseret News

The obnoxious cell phone user in the grocery store checkout line. The aggressive driver who cuts us off in traffic. The conniving co-worker who takes credit for our idea.

There are more than enough jerks to go around.

From bullying on the playground and in the workplace to abusing handicapped parking privileges to language packed with enough four-letter words it would make people at your granddad's Navy reunion blush. Yes, civility seems to be at an all-time low. Rudeness reigns in our stressed and impatient society.

Not surprising, a Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows Utahns don't think we are as nice to each other as we were 10 years ago, although ironically, most don't consider themselves any less well-mannered or polite.

According to the survey conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, 67 percent of respondents say people have definitely or probably become less civil during the past decade. Only 11 percent say Utahns are more civil, while 14 percent didn't discern a difference.

Of those who perceived the community as less civil, more than 90 percent identified language, driving and cell phone use as areas where manners have definitely slipped. Others listed were dress, table manners, customer service, youth sports and e-mail.

On the other hand, nearly half, 45 percent, say they personally have become more civil, while 37 percent see themselves as unchanged.

"People, in general, in surveys see the problem but very seldom do they see themselves as part of the problem," said P.M. Forni, director of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University.

Forni, an authority on civil behavior, has written two books on the subject, "Choosing Civility" and a follow-up titled "The Civility Solution" due out in June. The former contains 25 rules of considerate conduct, while the latter includes the "Terrible Ten" rudest behaviors and how to deal with them. He identified schools, workplaces and roads as places that seem to bring out the worst in people.

"When we talk about good manners, first and foremost, we do not talk about which fork to choose for the salad," he said. "We're talking about how we treat one another."

And why should we bother with civility, good manners and politeness?

Because, Forni says, the quality of our lives is at stake.

"Social skills make us likable. Being likable allows us to enjoy good relationships. Good relationships allow us to improve the quality of our lives.

"Our social skills determine our destiny. It's as simple as that."

A growing number of businesses have taken to reminding customers to be considerate, especially when it comes to cell phone use.

"We will be happy to serve you as soon as your cell phone conversation has ended. Thank you for your consideration," reads the sign at Sugarhouse Barbeque Company.

Managers posted the sign to keep chatty customers from holding up the popular eatery's long lunch-hour line.

"It's hard to say whether it's really made a difference or not," said assistant manager Miriam Mortensen. "I have seen people get off their cell phones and apologize."

Pharmacist Eric Loveridge doesn't have a cell phone sign at Dick's Pharmacy in Bountiful. He just waits for patrons to end the call before turning his attention to them. "It doesn't do any good to try to explain something to someone while they're having a conversation with Uncle Joe," he said.

Though Loveridge and Mortensen said it isn't a huge problem, cell phone use does irritate customers waiting to place orders.

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