OPINION: Rudeness is on the rise, but what’s behind the adult tantrums?

Tossing paper in the air is a tradition on Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session but while politicians are celebrating, the decline in civility they showed in their dealings hasn't gone unnoticed by the public.

Credit: AJC on Twitter

Credit: AJC on Twitter

Tossing paper in the air is a tradition on Sine Die, the last day of the legislative session but while politicians are celebrating, the decline in civility they showed in their dealings hasn't gone unnoticed by the public.

Last week, during a routine medical appointment at Piedmont Hospital, I saw signs I had never seen before.

“Attention! Our employees have the right to be treated with dignity and respect at all times. They should be able to do their jobs without being physically or verbally abused. Most people respect this. Thank you for being one of them.”

It is a literal sign of the times.

In my conversations with friends and sometimes strangers, everyone it seems is attuned to the rising level of rudeness. In Target, I watched a woman cut the line, then argue with anyone who told her to move to the rear. At the hair salon, a woman yelled, cursed and staged a sit-in because the colorist did not have the brand of hair color she likes. Recently, a Douglasville woman was arrested after allegedly striking a ticket agent in the face at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Frontline workers, who just years ago were heralded as America’s heroes, have since become the target of our anxieties and fears, according to Christine Porath, who has studied incivility for more than 20 years. “This kind of incivility leads to negative outcomes not only for the workers who experience it directly but also those who witness it — all of which harms businesses and society,” wrote Porath last year in the Harvard Business Review.

Porath found that 76% of respondents surveyed in 25 industries across the globe said they experienced incivility at least once a month. Those levels have risen steadily since 2012, which debunks the belief that it all began with the pandemic.

I imagine the signs at the hospital were posted in response to an incident or incidents that occurred on the campus. Representatives from Piedmont did not confirm any specific events, but they did send a statement in response to my inquiry.

“Piedmont exists to make a positive difference in every life we touch – the only way we can deliver on that promise is to ensure we are a place where all are welcome and safe, team members and patients alike. The signs represent just one of many efforts we are making to support our team members and remind patients and visitors to treat our team with kindness and respect.”

Piedmont Hospital utilizes signage to remind patrons that employees deserve to be able to do their jobs without being verbally or physically abused. Image credit: Nedra Rhone/nrhone@ajc.com

Credit: Nedra Rhone

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Credit: Nedra Rhone

While the pandemic may have done its part to exacerbate incivility, Porath said the main drivers of the upward trend in rudeness are stress, negative emotions, isolation, technology and lack of self-awareness. Americans have also pointed to the bad behavior of politicians in fueling the overall decline in kindness.

In January, the Georgia Municipal Association launched the “Embrace Civility “initiative to encourage elected officials in the state to treat each other with respect to set an example for the community.

But if we believe the words of the late Andrew Breitbart, politics is downstream from culture.

This level of incivility, the kind that results in verbal and physical abuse of restaurant workers, airline ticket agents or fellow shoppers in the grocery store, is likely fueled by fear, said Kevin Morton, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Marietta with a specialty in anger management.

“Fear is a big thing for a lot of people,” Morton said. When people are afraid — perhaps of what the future holds — they build defenses and say they are protecting themselves.

Morton explains to his clients the anger iceberg, where just below the surface lurks things like fear, frustration, hurt, depression, loneliness and unresolved trauma.

“All of these things manifest in public, in relationships, in the grocery store,” Morton said. “It becomes normalized.”

Behaving in a less than civil manner once could be considered a mistake. Doing it over and over again is a choice.

While the majority of Americans agree civility has declined, a similar percentage also said they behave in a civil manner. That probably indicates we aren’t spending a lot of time on self-reflection.

We can’t expect politicians to behave well if we continue to support them when they don’t. We can’t expect children to behave well if we don’t teach them how.

“We have to be the change agents,” Morton said. “We have to be the adults in the room.”

Adults are responsible for their own conduct. And, if they are evolved, they also will demand more from other adults who are acting up.

Treating people such as employees of hospitals, restaurants and airlines with kindness is a simple test of civility.

We shouldn’t need signs to remind us that kindness is always the right choice.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.