As the pandemic ends and life returns to something resembling normal, it’s increasingly apparent that the behaviour of many of us has radically changed during our collective period of isolation.  Unfortunately, much of it hasn’t been for the better.

Sad Signs of the Times

Consider if you will the following:

  • Everyone is Always “on” – go for a walk, go grocery shopping, or take a hike.  It seems everyone has their cellphone on and their ear buds in, and everyone is carrying on a conversation.  It used to be that people would walk or go for a hike to relax while relishing moments of solitude. Today, there is no such thing as being down or offline.
  • Tailgating, speeding and distracted driving – twice a week I play tennis early in the morning. I take a leisurely drive along a fairly deserted thoroughfare to get to my tennis club. Even at 6:30 a.m. and driving the speed limit I invariably have someone sitting on my back bumper itching to pass.  They usually go whizzing past only to meet up with me at the next stop light.  Either that, or I will be following someone, and as the street light turns green, they just sit there engrossed in their smartphone sitting in their lap.
  • Getting Your Way Regardless – it used to be that if someone brushed by you, bumped into you, or shoved you they would say “excuse me”.  Not anymore.  Perfunctory pleasantries are gone.  Now it’s everyone for themselves.  Words like “please” and “thank you” are absent from many conversations.  If you ask someone how they are they will respond, but aren’t likely to ask you the same.

How did we suddenly transition into a society comprised of such rude, obnoxious and distracted people?  Was it always like this, or were we just not so conscious of it previously?  Chivalry, it would appear, isn’t just dead.  It’s been hung, drawn, quartered, shot, and the remains burned to a crisp!

A Changing Social Ethos

The pandemic was characterized by a lot of fear and unknowns.  The fact that people were socially isolating didn’t help.  We are essentially social beings, and we all, to varying degrees, need to feel the connection of others.  But one of the side effects of the pandemic is that fear often breeds ruthless competition and defensiveness.  It seems like a variation of Darwin’s “Survival of the Fittest”.

Working from home isn’t the same as working in an office.  Being connected to the workplace through Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Webex isn’t the same as sitting physically across from your co-workers in an office or boardroom.  Having a conversation with someone in person provides validation, support and reassurance.  You don’t get that experience through an app.

Over this past year I have taught several classes, many online.  When the pandemic first started there was a novelty associated with virtual learning.  Sadly, that has all but disappeared.  Most of my virtual classes now are characterized by bored, disengaged students who are tired of artificial interactions, and long for learning in a more structured, immediate and engaging setting.  In a virtual world it is too easy to dial out, blame a poor internet connection, or claim that some technical gremlin has emerged to preclude your participation.  Learning virtually may have its place in our educational setting, but is a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction.

The other thing the virtual world has done is license behaviours that wouldn’t have been tolerated before. Witness the preponderance of shaming and vitriolic comments on social media, whether Twitter, TikTok or Instagram.  Misinformation spreads like wildfire, and remorse and sympathy have all but disappeared.  People seem to delight in others’ misfortune, and getting even is now the new norm.

Rudeness in our society has become particularly acute since the pandemic. Is it symptomatic of bigger problems in our society? (Photo courtesy of Craig Adderley and Pixels)

Rudeness in our society has become particularly acute since the pandemic. Is it symptomatic of bigger problems in our society? (Photo courtesy of Craig Adderley and Pexels)


Finding a New Normal

If where we are isn’t where we want to be then how do we shift to a new reality?

First, the inattention to politeness and social graces is a consequence of haste, pressure and stress in our daily lives. Anything that can reduce the speed of our daily lives, or that relieves workload and anxiety, should be considered a positive.

If you ever watch old movies or read classical novels you will quickly see evidence of this.  For instance, Victorian England was characterized by standards of social decorum, manners and respect.  Life moved at a slower pace, and attention to manners occupied a more prominent place in our society.  While some of this would be considered archaic in this modern day and age there are nevertheless things we can still learn.  Being mindful of those in distress, being considerate of the elderly and the very young, and where possible, showing respect to others regardless of their station in life, is a mark of consideration.  It is also a way of building connection with others.

Another suggestion is that our speech could certainly use some refinement.  Listen to celebrities and commentators on televisions and much of their conversation is punctuated by jargon, slang, colloquialisms and pithy aphorisms.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, many of us emulate that standard.  Some of us, myself included, will regretfully punctuate our conversations with the occasional profanity.  It isn’t something to be proud of, but words have meaning, and sometimes that language can mirror contempt for others and a preoccupation with our personal well-being.

That brings me to my final point.  Too often, we feel challenged to succeed or get ahead.  That, in turn, instills fear that often breeds an overt concern for our own personal well-being.  When we become overly concerned with our own well-being, we frequently neglect the needs of others.  Who cares if you rudely brush past someone at the grocery store to pick up an item on sale?  So what if you speed past a driver and snag the only vacant parking spot at the store?  We’ll never see or meet them again, right?

When getting our way takes precedence over our concern for others, and when the consequences of getting what we want when we want it seemingly has no downside, the uglier side of our personalities emerges.

A Final Thought…

A while back I was reading a newspaper article about the concept of military conscription in Israel.  While exploring this issue further I came across this interesting article which highlighted the pros and cons of a national draft:

Three issues resonated with me while reading this article. Reason #4 stated “A military draft creates more interest in performing actions for public welfare”.  Reason #5 said “A public identity forms under the umbrella of a military draft”.  Reason #9 noted “Military service gives each person a unique support network”.

I’m not knowledgeable enough to ascertain whether a national draft would ever work in Canada, let alone whether it is even necessary.  What I found unique though was that a national draft is viewed by some countries, notably the United States and Israel, as a viable social policy tool for promoting identity while building social connection and meaning that actually transcends one’s personal life and well-being.  

I would suggest that in a society in which we lack connection with one another, and where there is no mechanism to create or promote social cohesion, it is little wonder that there is limited regard for others.  The lack of manners is symptomatic of a much bigger problem in our society that goes well beyond social graces like simply using “please” and “thank you”.  If the only thing holding our society together is crass consumerism, personal advancement, or a preoccupation with getting our way, then the long-term prospects for our nation don’t look promising.