On a drizzly afternoon last February, I waited outside a store on Avenue Daumesnil in southeast Paris. The street was busy with people scurrying home from work. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a boy, maybe 12 years old, racing up the sidewalk on his aluminum scooter. A man in an overcoat and fedora turned his head just in time to see the boy coming up behind him. “Pardon, monsieur!” the child cried as he weaved past. The man dismissed the intrusion with a good-natured little wave.
Two days later, I was back in Canada, buying groceries at a busy local supermarket. As I navigated through the produce department, I could hear someone talking loudly. It turned out to be a woman chit-chatting on her hands-free cellphone. She continued the conversation up and down every aisle of the store and into the checkout queue. She seemed oblivious to the disturbance she was causing.
My thoughts went back to Avenue Daumesnil. We had only spent a week in Paris, but I had found it wonderfully refreshing. It began to dawn on me why. It was the civility of the place — the pre-eminence and orderliness of public life, the respect Parisians extend to each other (and yes, strangers) in shops, in cafés, in the metro and on the streets — even when it’s a 12-year-old on a tear. Experiencing genuine civility elsewhere underscored how uncivil my own society has become.
Rudeness is becoming the new normal. You’re likely to find it anywhere people gather: in a cinema full of text messagers; in the modern-day Babel of an airport departure lounge; in restaurants where you can’t hear yourself think, much less converse; on increasingly lawless roadways. Talk radio poisons the airwaves, reality TV champions the vulgar, and the blogosphere festers with rage. Politicians don’t disagree anymore; they revile each other.
How did it get this way? A study in the United States last year by the public relations firm Weber Shandwick showed that a huge majority (91 percent) of Americans actually take a dim view of incivility. But in the same study, 60 percent of the respondents confessed to being uncivil themselves. It’s almost as if we can’t help ourselves. Clearly, our addiction to gadgets like cellphones and smartphones has something to do with it. They’re redefining self-worth: you’re not whole unless you’re connected. If being connected means being uncivil, so be it.
But the issue probably goes deeper. Individualism has produced a lot of what is great in our society, but it has always come with the responsibility to balance our personal and public selves. It’s not always “me.” Maintaining that balance takes work, and I worry we’re getting lazy. We’re sliding into a narrow understanding of personal entitlement, excusing ourselves from the job of building and maintaining healthy civic relationships.
Civility is a big deal in France, so much so that it’s built into the national motto: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité — liberty, equality, brotherhood. It seems to make a difference. In the days after we returned from Paris, I found myself in a funk, acutely aware of the diminishment of fraternité at home. Then one blustery day, I was walking on a busy Toronto street when a sudden gust of wind grabbed hold of an elderly man’s cap and deposited it into the midday traffic. A younger man rushed to his side, then stepped off the curb, waving his arms at the approaching cars. They screeched to a stop, and the young man quickly retrieved the cap from the pavement and handed it back to the owner. They shook hands and went on their way.
There’s still hope.
Keep it free!
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