The more we grow, the less civil we become
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The more we grow, the less civil we become

Organizers behind the second annual Random Act of Kindness Day hope Friday the 13th turns out to be a bit nicer than its reputation. They’re urging us all to be a bit friendlier, to do something nice in a pay-it-forward kind of way.

The idea is to get us moving away from the ruder track we’re on as a society. We are, it seems, increasingly less civil to one another.

That’s not surprising given the changes in our society. As cities grow, they become less personal. There are more “others:” people we don’t know, people who aren’t like us – race, class, culture. That makes us more defensive, and more likely to spend less time in public situations. When we’re out, we try our best to pretend the others don’t exist. The larger the city and the more crowded the area, the more likely we are to assert our personal space.

Add to that a certain paranoia about crime and you’ve got the recipe for a more detached society. That’s the bane of initiatives such as the Kitchener and Waterloo Community Foundation’s kindness day.

For one day, we might be prompted to exhibit our kinder tendencies: hold open a door, let someone merge into traffic or acknowledge others with a smile or ‘thank-you.’ But is it sustainable? Are we getting meaner, lowering the baseline for civility? Or are growth and shifting demographics making us that way, simply our reaction to change?

Those who live in the smaller communities of Woolwich and Wellesley townships will tell you they’re friendlier places – people are nice. That feeling is less prevalent in the region’s cities, and mostly absent when you visit larger centers such as Toronto.

That anecdotal evidence points to the effects population has on civility, a reality borne out by research. The greater the feeling of anonymity, the more rude we are likely to become: you flip the bird to strangers, not to neighbours you’ve had over to your house for a cup of coffee.

Even as we become more crowded, we’re living more isolated lives. People used to socialize and communicate more often with people in their communities. We were more involved. Today, however, we’re more likely to spend time alone in front of the television or, increasingly, in front of the computer, where online “social” networking has displaced real human interactions. Without strong social connections, we’re more likely to be rude to each other.

It doesn’t help that films and television present cruelty and meanness as entertainment. Kindness is depicted as a weakness, with aloofness seen as a strong trait. Even comedies show kids and adults tossing around wisecracks and insults with abandon.

It’s into this environment that the foundation is casting out a challenge to be nicer. Some of the organization’s suggestions are easily carried out: a thank-you to the person serving up your morning coffee or a greeting to colleagues and coworkers is a fairly easy task. We tend, anyway, to be nicer to those people we know. If the sentiment behind Random Act of Kindness Day is to propagate, we have to extend goodwill to strangers. Let’s face it, if you see a friend trying to pull his car out of a parking lot and into traffic, you’re going to stop and wave him ahead. That’s much less likely with someone you don’t know, especially if you don’t like the look of him.

There are social norms about interacting with unknown people in public, unwritten rules that see us do our best to ignore the fact we’re surrounded by strangers when we’re away from the privacy and comfort of our homes.

You can easily test that theory by attempting to strike up a conversation with strangers out in public. Most often, they’ll be taken aback, and wary of your intentions. Even in the case of a shared experience – waiting in the same line, for instance – the personal boundaries are intact.

Most of us are very particular about our personal space. It’s interesting to watch how people attempt to distance themselves as much as possible from others in places such as waiting rooms or on public transit. We try to keep the maximum distance from everyone else – it’s a well-studied mathematical certainty. Want to put that to the test? Try striking up a conversation in an elevator, for instance. Accepted behaviour dictates you pretend there’s no one else there. Most people adhere to the rules. Curiously, our social nature takes over the minute there’s a shared experience: if the elevator stops unexpectedly, we’ll immediately begin talking to the people we were studiously ignoring just moments before.

Still, there’s no harm in being at least a little more polite. Saying “thank you” is just good manners – your mother should have taught you that – as is holding open a door, or at least making sure it’s not slamming into the next person’s face. That kind of thing should go without saying. That it doesn’t tells us we’ve got a long way to go.

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