We swear at each other from cars, bark at each other on the TTC and yell into our cellphones. How a supposedly livable city suddenly turned boorish
I got into a cat fight the other day at the Bolshoi ballet, one of those live satellite transmissions at my local Cineplex, where people arrive an hour early to get a good seat. The orchestra in Moscow hadn’t yet begun warming up when one balletomane barked at me for sitting in her territory, a 10-seat swath ambiguously marked with scattered scarves and hats. “You can’t sit there,” she said, with surprising nastiness. When I chose a seat farther down the row, she snapped, “That’s taken, too.” Steaming, I moved to a third spot and plunked my bag down on the seat beside me, not to save it for anyone, but to ensure zero human contact after being bullied by Lady Ten-Seat.
Rudeness is contagious. When another woman arrived a minute later and needed two seats, I set my jaw. “You’re not going to move your bag?” she asked, incredulous. “Nope,” I replied. We exchanged sharp words. “I’m tired of being pushed around by your friend,” I finally hissed, nodding at Lady Ten-Seat. It turned out not only did they not know one another, but my newfound adversary had just received the same rude treatment. “Now I’m totally edgy, too,” she confessed, suddenly extending her hand. “I’m Jane. Let’s be friends.” Mortified, I shook her hand, apologized and moved my coat. Then we all settled in to watch Giselle.
I wish such hostile encounters were rare, but it’s hard to navigate the city these days without experiencing friction. At least that’s my observation. Perhaps I’m just a magnet for trouble. Perhaps you, on the other hand, float through winter with people politely stepping into snowbanks to let you pass; perhaps you’ve never been held captive to a cellphone user’s inane conversation on a streetcar. But I say civility is on the decline, and the evidence is everywhere.
In the ongoing reality show that is Rob Ford’s city hall, Don Cherry set the uncivil tone with his Coach’s Corner–like rant during the mayor’s swearing-in ceremony. When anti-poverty protesters invaded a budget committee meeting in February—an intentionally rude gesture in itself—first brother Doug Ford grumbled, “Get a job!”
Meanwhile, new technology has given us all inventive ways to be bad-mannered. People check Twitter feeds while dining with friends. And thanks to cellphones, no one’s ever technically late because you can now text-message the poor sap waiting for you: “Hey, I’m five minutes away!”
This new standard of punctuality has infected other spheres. More and more people seem to arrive late for the theatre and concerts. Fortunately, the Toronto Symphony typically schedules a short introductory piece, so applause covers the sound of latecomers climbing over the legs and laps of others. At the end of the performance, some don’t even bother with a perfunctory acknowledgement of the artists, rushing for the exits before the orchestra has taken its first bow. (What is it with these patrons of the arts?)
In Canada’s biggest, most congested city, the rudeness epidemic is most obvious on our roads. Recently, while I was driving, a man in a car behind me honked his horn, and a nanosecond later the driver in front of me gave me the finger. Everyone is stressed out simply going to and from work; our average commuting time of 80 minutes a day—the equivalent of more than 40 work days a year—is among the worst in the world. No wonder drivers cut each other off or nearly mow down pedestrians. And no wonder pedestrians retaliate by crossing intersections at an aggravatingly slow, I’m-entitled-to-walk-like-I’m-93-years-old pace when a car is trying to make a turn. It makes you want to run them over.
This isn’t a joke. Studies show a correlation between giving the finger and traffic fatalities. John Helliwell, a professor emeritus of economics at UBC, lectures widely on the subject of well-being. He’s interested in interpersonal trust, as measured by traffic etiquette. He led me to a study by Matthew Nagler, a professor at the City College of New York, who looked at traffic-finger data and traffic fatalities across various states. Nagler found that in places where more people gave the finger, there were more traffic deaths. In the U.S., finger incidents rose nearly six per cent annually from 1997 to 2006.
Not surprisingly, men are more likely to give the traffic finger than women. Surprisingly, rich people are more likely to flip the bird than poor. According to Helliwell’s preliminary analysis, for every doubling of income, a person is five per cent likelier to have given another driver the finger. Indeed, the higher your socio-economic status, the more entitled you might feel and the ruder you might behave. Recent studies bear this out. In videotaped conversations between two strangers, those with lower socio-economic status were more likely to nod, make eye contact and laugh. Those with higher socio-economic status were more likely to doodle, self-groom or fidget. Psychologists theorize that rich people are ruder because they are less reliant on the good will of others to survive.
Of course, no single group has a monopoly on rudeness. An epidemic knows no socio-economic or ethnic bounds. And sometimes, perceived rudeness is merely the result of a multicultural misunderstanding—an inevitability in a city as diverse as Toronto. Helliwell says our high influx of immigrants creates confusion. “There’s a much more cacophonous set of signals going on. When you have an uneven set of social skills and someone taps their horn, another person will say, ‘What the hell are they doing that for?’ And then they get angry and lose empathy.”
Neil Bissoondath, the Trinidadian-born Canadian novelist, agrees. “When we get our signals crossed, it comes across as a kind of racism or rejection of another ethnic group,” he says. When he first arrived in Toronto, he remembers being surprised, for instance, to see queues. “In Trinidad, nobody lined up for anything. When a bus came, everyone rushed forward, but it wasn’t considered impolite.”
In a taxi the other day, I noticed that every time someone let the driver squeeze into a lane, he politely waved his thanks. So I was surprised when he honked at someone hogging the fast lane. The driver, a 35-year-old immigrant from India, explained it this way: “I tap the horn lightly, just once. That’s not rude. I just want to remind the person they’re going too slowly. A rude honk would be longer and louder.”
One person’s helpful nudge is another’s ill-mannered shove. What are manners anyway but a set of tribal customs? During a lunch I attended in Chinatown a few years back, a fellow journalist passed around a platter of jumbo shrimp and casually remarked, “Chinese don’t have etiquette, right?” As the only non-white at the table of 10, I felt compelled to note that no Chinese person would be so rude as he had been, just then, to take two jumbo shrimp when it was obvious there was only enough on the platter for each person to have one.
Mr. Two-Shrimp. Lady Ten-Seat. They both had a bloated sense of entitlement. I’ve since become friends with the woman who shook my hand at the Bolshoi ballet. Her name is Jane Gibson; she’s a writer and film director. We recently went to another ballet together, Don Quixote. We agreed that trying to eradicate friction in the city is like tilting at windmills.