The World Isn’t Getting Ruder — Your Ego Just Makes It Seem That Way

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Man, kids these days. When they’re not forcing companies to hire expensive consultants to decode their mysterious ways or, I don’t know, expressing inadequate gratitude for not having to walk uphill through the snow to school, you know what they’re doing? Being rude. And impolite. And ill-behaved, and discourteous, and generally uncivilized.

But our sense of this era’s uniqueness is likely a little warped in this regard (as it is in so many other ways — we tend to believe that right now, whenever that happens to be, is the the most hectic, the most difficult on the bowels, etc.). As BPS Research Digest recently reported, there’s an alternative explanation for the seeming rudeness epidemic, and it has more to do with your own ego than other people’s lack of manners.

In a post yesterday, BPS highlighted a study in the European Journal of Psychology asking volunteers to read descriptions of a few scenarios in which someone behaved rudely, like cutting off another driver on the highway or holding a loud phone conversation on a crowded bus. Some of the passages were in third person, framing the study participants as observers or victims; others were in first person, written as if the readers were the rude ones.

When they were asked to rate how offensive the offending act truly was, BPS noted, the perspective switch made a significant difference: 

The participants viewed the same infringements very differently depending on their perspective. In the role of perpetrator, they saw the incivility as less serious, more due to the situation, less likely to cause hurt, and thought it more likely that they would apologise, but that it would be less likely their apology would be accepted. Conversely, when they were the victim, they saw the same rude act as more serious, more deliberate and more likely to cause them hurt, and less likely to come with an apology, and yet they said it would be more likely that they would brush off the situation and accept an apology.

The study also found that participants treated friends’ rudeness similarly to their own — overall, they were less bothered by hypothetical transgressions from someone they knew.

And this, the study authors argued, may be the key to the rudeness illusion: “The strong difference between what it expected from self and friends and what is expected from strangers … is striking, and may account for much of the popular moral outrage at rude behavior,” the study authors wrote. “In our modern era more and more of the people we interact with and whom we may perceive as uncivil are in fact strangers, and our bias to see strangers as both more uncivil and less likely to apologize may then lead us to see the world as more and more rude.”

It’s a pretty simple formula, in other words: Strangers are ruder than friends, and certainly ruder than we are. As the world shrinks, we see more strangers than we used to. Therefore, we see more rudeness, too. It’s not an erosion of civilization; it’s math. An easy fix for those who find all the impoliteness too much to handle, then, might be to just stay home more — something, coincidentally, at which the kids these days also seem to excel.