Is Britain still home of mannerly charm? Don't be daft!
When Mark Duckworth started working at grocery stores in the late 1980s, customers still uttered pleasantries like "good morning," "please," and "thank you."Skip to next paragraph
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Sixteen years later, shoppers use a rather different lexicon. There are muttered insults, impatient outbursts, and all manner of curses not fit for print. Some even resort to physical abuse, like spitting, shoving, or punching.
"I was getting abuse every day," says Mr. Duckworth, who left his job due to a knee injury inflicted by a would-be shoplifter. Customers are "getting ruder and ruder," he adds. "The level of respect in society has just gone."
Duckworth is not alone. From doctors to train drivers, teachers to call-center staff, millions of British workers face rising levels of anger, impatience, and discourtesy from the public they serve.
Whatever happened to the mannerly isle full of polite souls who ask about each other's health over a cup of tea? Some observers say Britain has grown vulgar only in recent years. Others say things were never so genteel.
"There has been a gradual coarsening of our society," says Dr. Colin Gill, a psychologist at Leeds University. "Having said that, elements of society have always been incredibly coarse in this country, and it's just becoming more obvious now because the media actually tend to celebrate it."
Evidence of what they media have started calling "rude Britain" is everywhere, from surly service to road rage, noisy neighbors to cellphone selfishness.
A sales clerk in Britain is physically or verbally abused every minute, union officials charge. In schools, thousands of teachers are rebuked, threatened, or assaulted by parents every year.
On Saturday nights, town centers are often a no-go area of brawling youths. At a soccer match last weekend, two stars were sent off for fighting - and they were on the same team.
On public transport, signs warn of punishment for anyone who physically assaults staff. Remarkably, casualty wards in hospitals carry the same signs, a clear indication that even the sick and wounded are losing their temper these days.
The trend is even taking on political connotations in the run-up to the May 5 general election, called Tuesday by Prime Minister Tony Blair. The government has tried to crack down on offensive behavior with a new on-the-spot order called an Asbo (antisocial behavior order). Opposition Conservatives have hit back, saying the government isn't doing enough and that they would be tougher on louts and boors.
The media has joined the debate with disapproving noises about "yob culture," though Dr. Gill argues that they may be part of the problem, given the tabloid tendency to champion the vulgar. With uncouth soccer stars and reality-TV contestants as role models, society has recalibrated its moral compass.
"The heroes of the modern generation have generally not embraced the traditional virtues," he notes.