Why Are Americans So Rude? Can We Fix This?

Why Are Americans So Rude? Can We Fix This?

Congress has recently considered banning unruly passengers from flying on commercial planes. American Airlines flight attendant Pedro Enriquez laments that this remains just an idea: “It is disappointing to me that a passenger who was arrested for physically assaulting and spitting in a flight attendant’s face can continue to fly on commercial airplanes here in the United States”.

Last week, my family took a vacation during our kids’ spring break. My wife, daughter, and I were blessed with wonderful weather while visiting Lake Ontario, the Erie Canal, and two of the Finger Lakes while our son – serving as principal trombone of the All-Eastern Orchestra – was rehearsing for his concert. Their wonderful performance last Sunday was held at the Eastman School of Music’s gorgeous, giant concert hall, Kodak Hall. (My son was also principal trombone of the All-National Orchestra, which performed in Washington, DC last November. I couldn’t be a prouder dad!)

After being cooped up at home most of these past three years, sleeping in a hotel room – or, rather, TRYING to sleep in a hotel room – was a shock. Our first night, we had to call the front desk at nearly midnight because our neighbor had been playing their TV loudly all evening, and we couldn’t sleep. Ironically, the hotel worker who asked them to turn down their sound struggled to get their attention when he knocked on their door because their TV was so loud.

Every morning and evening, people ran and shouted and stomped and had loud, extended conversations in the hallway. These sometimes woke me at 6-something or stopped me from falling asleep at nearly midnight. (It didn’t help that our room was opposite the room where hotel workers kept their supplies. The hotel workers seemed as oblivious to the noise they generated as the hotel guests.)

I’m understanding of little children making noise, even though we always made clear to our young children that they had to be very quiet in the mornings and late at night in hotel rooms. Many parents don’t seem to care.

The worst are the adults who feel they’re on vacation and entitled to party until 3:00 am because they’re unshackled from life’s normal obligations.

“Common courtesy” and “common sense” are so uncommon in 2023. It’s depressing.

Uncivil behavior is epidemic in America, and I propose extending the airline ban to a “no sleep” list for hotels. Many Americans are selfish, self-absorbed jerks, and the only thing that might help the rest of us get the sleep we need while traveling is the threat of punishment for those who wake us up in the early morning or middle of the night.

We all witness the same rude behaviors while driving or surfing social media. Some people seem to take pleasure in doing all kinds of rude and dangerous things. At least dangerous drivers eventually get their licenses yanked.

Hotel chains are massive, each a collection of brands, each aimed at a different customer segment. Because a handful of chains run most hotels, government action isn’t even required. A chain could ban unruly customers from its hotels. Hotels seldom do this, likely because they fear losing customers. But this is short-sighted thinking that fails to consider the positive consequences of a hotel chain guaranteeing customers a quiet night’s sleep. If one chain ran an ad campaign promising to ban all the arseholes, I know which chain would instantly win all my family’s future business!

If one hotel chain adopted this practice, I expect others would feel market pressure to do the same, as travelers seeking quiet fled to hotels that crack down on unruly guests. Equilibrium would eventually divide hotel chains into quieter hotels with more civilized guests and loud hotels filled with obnoxious, selfish people. Some hotels and B&B’s already attempt to fill this coveted niche by banning pets and young children. But not all children are unruly, and not all adults are well-mannered. Banning obnoxious guests would be a superior solution.

This isn’t speculation. In response to claims that anti-harrassment rules limit free speech, J. Nathan Matias’s research found:

Using a large-scale field experiment in a community with 13 million subscribers, I show that it is possible to prevent unruly behavior and also increase newcomer participation in public discussions of science. Announcements of community rules in discussions increased the chance of rule compliance by >8 percentage points and increased newcomer participation by 70% on average.

J. Nathan Matias, “Preventing harassment and increasing group participation through social norms in 2,190 online science discussions,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 29 April 2019, (https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1813486116)

Subsequent research seeking to replicate the original finding confirms that prominently posting rules prohibiting harrassment doesn’t reduce overall communication or participation and often produces MORE communication and participation.

Just a few decades ago, Americans were “free” to smoke on airplanes. Congress finally passed a smoking ban, restricting smokers’ freedom while granting the rest of us the right to breathe clean(er) air on airlines. Americans didn’t stop flying on airplanes, and restricting smokers’ “right” to smoke on airplanes is widely considered a net positive. The same is true of government restricting your “right” to drive without seat belts. Eliminating that “right” has saved many lives, esp. those of innocent young children whose parents were legally mandated to strap them in. The same is true of motorcycle helmet laws:

A New York man died Sunday while participating in a ride with 550 other motorcyclists to protest the state’s mandatory helmet law.

Police said Philip A. Contos, 55, hit his brakes and his motorcycle fishtailed. Contos was sent over the handlebars of his 1983 Harley Davidson and hit his head on the pavement.

Alyssa Newcomb, “New York Rider Dies Protesting Motorcycle Helmet Law,” 4 July 2011

Societies vary across a spectrum from collectivist to individualistic. Japanese are so concerned about others (or, at least, so concerned about what others might think if they deviated from social norms) that virtually everyone constantly wore masks throughout the entire pandemic:

Japan’s approach to masking is very much the opposite of “to each their own.” …The vast majority of Japanese mask everywhere. That includes outdoor locations, even while hiking in mountain temples and other rural areas where few others were around…

Setting aside the aforementioned airports, masking is virtually universal in Japan as of early 2023.

…More than anywhere else, masking was universal aboard trains. Over the course of a month, I saw 3 Japanese people without masks on trains.

Tom Bricker, “Face Masks in Japan: Rules v. Reality (2023)”

Many Americans seem to think and behave as if they alone matter. We talk constantly in America about “rights” yet seldom talk about obligations. Societies and democracies aren’t self-sustaining. They require citizens to engage and participate. (Shout out to my mom, who serves as an election poll worker!) And because your rights and my rights can conflict, “rights” cannot be absolute. As one obvious – to most but not all Americans – example, your rights don’t extend to infringing on even more fundamental rights of others, as when gun-wielders murder others, depriving them of the ultimate right… the right to life.

We’ve become so numb to others’ pains and concerns and interests that some Americans consider it their “right” to tell other Americans how to live, whom we can love and marry, whom we must worship, what medications we’re allowed to take, whether we must carry our rapist’s baby to term, etc. What happened to “live and let live” and “live free or die”? Isn’t freedom from others telling you how to live your life the fundamental meaning of “liberty” and “freedom”? You be you, and I’ll be me.

Although “freedom-loving” white supremacists place “freedom” and “liberty” as the pinnacle of all American values, they would withhold those American treasures from immigrants, ancestors of slaves, and other intruders… conveniently overlooking the fact that white Europeans invaded the Americas and stole it, often violently, from the indiginous peoples already living here. White supremacists enthusiastically supported Donald Trump because he frequently dog-whistled the existence of two Americas: the REAL America of white, male, Christians and the mass of dirty, fake, welfare-queen Americans whom they claim are getting a free ride on the backs of hard-working taxpayers, i.e., all the “real” Americans…. even though “red” states get far more money back from the federal government than their taxpayers pay to the federal government. Also, the liberal, latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, New England-style “Christians” aren’t real Christians. The evangelical, Ford F-150-driving kind of Christians are the good ones, the real Americans.

While not imposing our religious and moral preferences/beliefs on others is a good first step, we must do better because your choosing to skip a free, effective vaccine increases the risk of everyone around you, which ripples out to everyone, because viruses and bacteria die or thrive based on the totality of all choices individuals within society make. We live in a society, and society sustains us. “Division of labor” lets us each specialize in providing a niche benefit to society for which we’re rewarded with money to enjoy the output of many other specialists. None of us could survive on our own. We require one another. And we should care for one another. Ironically, that was Jesus’s principal message, yet some of the most intolerant, unempathetic Americans in 2023 consider themselves devout Christians. They’ve come untethered from Jesus’s core teaching.

(I recently watched a brilliant low-tech sci-fi movie that makes this point – and many more – brilliantly: The Man From Earth. The story is so strong that group of college professors sitting in a cabin talking with each other somehow becomes a gripping drama! I won’t spoil it for you by sharing any more, but I definitely recommend it.)

As this week’s news makes depressingly clear, some of us even react with literal trigger fingers to perceived slights or even the approach of a stranger to our house or car. Any one of us could be murdered just for knocking on the wrong door or accidentally trying to open the wrong car door in a parking lot.

America’s fearful gun-toters have exploded like dandilions. This is no random fluke. This is the result of a deliberate, decades-long campaign by right-wing news outlets, Republican Party candidates, and organizations like the NRA to sow fear and division and intolerance and jealousy and promote guns as the answer. In this brilliant segment, a former Republican congressman and a liberal explain the cynical project that landed America in its dangerous present.

For such an individualistic nation, Americans oddly endow our corporations and corporate executives and managers with incredible control over our lives. Even giant corporations like Amazon – earning massive profits – seem to behave psychopathically with zero regard for employee health and safety. American workers have far fewer employee rights than workers in most other industrialized nations.

I’m not sure what this says about us, but John Oliver’s recent chilling episode on how American farms abuse children and migrant workers suggests Americans tolerate abuse and cruelty toward workers (and the animals who become our food) because it keeps prices down. It also suggests that our legacy of slavery, which continued on as sharecropping, basically continues on anywhere in America where we choose to look a blind eye to it, i.e., anywhere poor immigrants are being abused and exploited. At best, we seem apathetic. But some Americans appear to derive satisfaction from debasing and exploiting immigrants, liberals, the poor, the homeless, former criminals, or anyone else they perceive as different or “less” of a human being than them.

Anand Giridharadas summarized our plight brilliantly in the clip above:

“The hallmark of modern society is anonymous trust. You don’t have to know people to transact with them… We’re not just dividing as a society. We’re not just polarizing. We are de-developing. We are moving backwards with millions of people, their brains now addled by – we were talking about ‘Fox News’ – this propagandistic feeling that you are in danger & everybody’s a threat. We’re going back to this ‘Game of Thrones’ world where many of our fellow citizens feel like they live in a castle and there is a moat and if anyone crosses your moat, they need to be murdered because they could only be coming to murder you. It is national brain damage, and it is deadly, and it is eroding the foundation of what makes this a functional, free, modern society.”

(Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash)