Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On civility and respect

I was talking to one of my friends the other day, and our conversation veered into the area of civility and respect for others. She was bemoaning the lack of respect that she deals with on an often daily basis in her job as grammar school teacher. The fact of the matter is that children don’t respect teachers nor are they instructed at home to do so. Her feeling is often that some parents have ‘abandoned ship’ by not involving themselves in their children’s education. I listen to her frustration and understand that it must be very difficult to teach when you do not have the attention and respect of your class. This is not to say that all her pupils are like this, but those who are disrespectful make it difficult for the rest of the class, as always. I remember this from my own grammar school days, seething because one or two boys disrupted the class and the teacher ended up punishing the entire class for the sins of a few. But generally, the disrespect and the lack of manners that we are witnessing at present are slowly destroying the fabric of society. We need respect and civility in order to deal with each other on a daily basis. When these disappear, I think I will move to the hills, far away from everyone, and live as a hermit.

Oslo is now trying to do something about the lack of manners that abound on public transportation. There have been several newspaper articles recently describing how younger people are not offering their seats on buses or trams to older people or to pregnant women for example during rush hour, and discussions and debates abound on television about how to deal with the problem. In my book, it’s a simple answer. Just do it. Just open your mouth and offer your seat to an older person or an obviously pregnant woman. For every person who says no thanks, there are two who will say thank you and take you up on your offer. It costs nothing to try offering your seat. It is better than never offering it at all. Have we become such a passive society that we ignore what is going on around us? Are we so tuned out listening to our music or reading our newspapers that we cannot see what is going on around us? Have we become thoughtless people? There are other problems as well. There is no such thing as ‘cueing up’ in Norway, at least not from what I can see in Oslo. Lines that form are suddenly ‘ignored’ by a few people who decide that they need to be first. It is infuriating to witness this, because none of the Norwegians get angry either when this happens (except me, the American and the New Yorker). I just think back to the time when there was a public transportation strike in New York City during the early 1980s; lines stretched around the block to take the private buses that transported folk to and from the different boroughs, and you could easily wait in line for an hour to board a bus. If you had tried to cut in line before someone else, you would have had your head handed to you. New Yorkers believe in lines and they will (loudly) defend their place in line and prevent another from unfairly cutting in line before them. That’s just how it is and I for one think it’s correct to comment someone else’s rude behavior if they try to cut in line. It may lead to arguments, but hey, that’s better than standing by passively letting the rudeness and disrespect occur.

A new and particularly disrespectful trend among some people (especially the younger people but also some middle-aged as well) is to double or triple book an evening—in other words, to say yes to two or three invitations and then to choose the best or what they consider to be the coolest event to attend. I am just surmising that this is the case because I have no other explanation for the behavior. I have now witnessed (and experienced personally) this several times.  On one occasion, I invited several people to a small dinner party, and all of them said they could come. The day before the dinner, I sent out a little reminder email and wished everyone welcome. Immediately afterward, I received an email from one person telling me she could not make it because of last minute work deadlines. Had I not emailed her, she would not have showed up and would not have informed me at all. I would have called her wondering where she was and she would have waited until then to tell me. I cannot rule out that she had made other plans that were more important to her. On the evening in question, another person almost didn’t come because her thirty year old son was returning home from traveling and she ‘suddenly’ had to pick him up at the airport. As it was, she showed up late but at least she showed up. But those of us who were present at the dinner wondered why he couldn’t just have taken a taxi home when he knew his mother had made other plans. But it was her fault anyway for not standing up for herself and saying that she had other plans. And so it goes. On a recent job outing (dinner out at a restaurant), ten people had agreed to meet for dinner and all of them expressed enthusiasm about getting together, even up until three days before we were all to meet. Exactly three days before the dinner, four people canceled: two had made other plans and were completely open about this (!); one said it would probably be difficult for her to make it without giving any specific reason; and one was genuinely sick. A table had been booked for ten people, and six people showed up. I can only wonder how conferences and seminars can plan anything, especially if food is ordered for participants. You could order food for two hundred people who say they will attend a seminar, and one hundred people show up. As I recall now, that has also happened in recent years, and the participants ended up taking the leftover food home. But the arrangers still had to pay for it. It’s completely rude and disrespectful to behave this way, but it has become much more common now than before. I never remember people behaving this way before. I have another example from last autumn—also work-related. A tour of Oslo’s haunted old buildings had been planned and ten people said they would join. A guide was booked (that ten people would have paid for). Only three people showed up. The tour was fun and very interesting, but even the guide seemed a bit taken aback and wondered where the other seven people were. This is just plain wrong--bad behavior, rude behavior. The seven people who did not show up knew that they were leaving the eventual cost over to three people. Disrespectful. As it was, the bill was paid by our institute and did not come out of our pockets, simply because one of the bosses also thought as I did, that this behavior was irresponsible. I am commenting on this type of behavior because it seems as though this is where society is heading. We ‘commit’, but only half-heartedly. We don’t show up and we don’t feel bad (none of the ‘cancellers’ in question felt badly about their behavior). We cannot count on the word of another. And that is something to worry about. If this type of behavior had just happened once, I would be inclined to let it go as a one-time thing. But unfortunately it is becoming all too prevalent. People need to speak up, to say ‘this is rude’, ‘I don’t like this behavior’ and so forth. Having manners and respect for others is part of what it means to be a responsible adult, and children need to be taught these as well. But they cannot learn the correct way to behave from adults when the adults themselves don’t know how to behave.

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