Social Friction

What’s wrong with this picture?

The following news story is about a community seeking to redress its loss of civility. While admirable, this, in and of itself, is not newsworthy in today’s largely brusque and inconsiderate American society.

What makes it newsworthy and significant, what makes it a milestone in the downward spiral of the civility of American society, is that this story is from Woodbury, Minnesota.

Minnesota is known for many things. Aside from lakes, food on a stick and mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds, it is most known for its civility. In fact, the defining characteristic of the people of Minnesota is “Minnesota nice.” Minnesota nice is now grasping for ways to restore civility in its communities.

How did we degenerate as a society from a land of reasonable amounts of common respect, manners and social behavior to one in which the epicenter of civility is seeking to restore a baseline of considerate conduct?

As in living with a growing child or a frog in a slowly boiling pot of water, it is hard to recognize change when it happens incrementally. From our perspective of being outside the country quite a bit in the last decade, the change has been progressive, relentless and dramatic.

The forces that drive the loss of civility in American society are large and up to now, irresistible. Even 9/11 brought only a couple of weeks where people remembered what it was like to be nice to one another. All too soon, rudeness once again ruled.

What changed in the last few decades to indoctrinate Americans to treat each other in such a way? During that time there were three parallel alterations in the underlying society. First, dual income and single parent households became the majority. The common aspect in those households is that no one is parenting the kids; the children are sitting in front of a television, being raised by Hollywood. Second, over those decades the dialog in the more than four hours of television that the average American watches per day has grown courser, the human interactions more confrontational and abrasive and the level of acceptable social behavior debased. Is this a case of art imitating life or one of life being instructed as to what was acceptable behavior? Third, American society has become de-personalized by technology. People write things behind the shield of anonymity of online forums, communities and networks that they would, one hopes, never say in person. People’s relationships, while innumerably more numerous than in past decades, are shallower and lacking in physical human interaction. Taken together, these three factors have changed the social face of America, changed the people who make up America, and transformed what is acceptable public behavior.

In my book How the World Works, I wrote that “Manners are the universal lubricant of social interaction and existence. The more polite you are, the easier life becomes.” The antithesis of this is that the less you exhibit manners and civil behavior, the more friction is introduced into social interaction and existence. America has become a society of sand spreaders, a population intent on adding as much friction, conflict and confrontation into every aspect of social intercourse.

At a time like this, don’t we need less social friction instead of more?


Considerate conduct can speak volumes

Washington County is trying to turn the tide of rudeness by reading and discussing a single book that promotes civility.

By KEVIN GILES, Star Tribune
Last update: March 14, 2009 – 9:25 PM

A salesperson ignores your requests, an aggressive driver flips you the one-fingered salute, your co-workers interrupt when you’re making a point in conversation, your child’s playmate misbehaves.

Accept it as the way of today’s world, right?

Not in Washington County, where librarians are using a single book to inspire a broad discussion about the importance of choosing civility over rudeness. They hope the “One County, One Book” reading program will set thousands of residents to talking about reversing a hardening culture of inappropriate behavior.

“We hope civility is catching on everywhere,” said Joe Manion, public services division manager for Washington County Library. “The concept is real simple: People come together through reading a single book and they discuss it and learn from it.”

The 208-page book, “Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct,” is under discussion at book clubs across the county. The author, P.M. Forni, will appear at the R.H. Stafford Library in Woodbury on April 21 at 7 p.m. for a public discussion.

Computers and an overdose of activities outside the home have driven families to a point where everybody hurries and nobody talks, said Mary Schrankler, who led the Stafford Library’s book club in a recent discussion about civility. “That’s a missing component in many families,” she said. “The heart of the book is the way people treat each other.”

Schrankler, a retired principal from the North St. Paul-Maplewood school district, said participants in her book club seemed most concerned about rudeness in the workplace. She added that schools have an extra burden teaching children how to relate to others in a civil manner.

“We’re such a blaming society now,” she said.

Washington County has stocked its libraries with about 200 copies of Forni’s book, Manion said. “It’s been very popular,” he said. Libraries also loan “instant book club kits” that include 10 copies of the book, a book discussion guide and advice on how to host a reading group.

In addition, county libraries have programs for children to learn about civility targeted to preschooler and kindergarten children.

The 25 rules of civil conduct shouldn’t surprise anyone because it’s time-honored advice, Manion said. For example, think the best, accept and give praise, respect other people’s space, think twice before asking for favors, refrain from idle complaints, respect the environment, be gentle to animals, and don’t shift responsibility and blame.

Forni, who co-founded the Civility Initiative at John Hopkins University in Baltimore several years ago, also has written a companion book, “The Civility Solution: What to Do When People Are Rude.”

Manion, who’s working on the one-book project with Patricia Conley, the county library director, said that residents need to avoid becoming so isolated with electronic gadgets that they forget the importance of civil fact-to-face conversation and negotiation.

“I don’t know if Washington County is uniquely uncivil or rude,” he said. But the county’s sharp swing in recent years from rural village-type communities to more impersonal, sprawling suburbs contributes to the problem, he said.

“We hope people will choose civility and as a result of this we will have a kinder and gentler community in Washington County,” Manion said.

Kevin Giles • 612-673-4432