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Land of the free, home of the . . . rude

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002

We've all been there.

You're pushing a cart through a grocery store when you run into someone who is blocking the aisle. Rather than moving to one side, the shopper barks at you for disturbing her deep thoughts over which macaroni and cheese to buy.

You see children playing in a busy street or doing something equally dangerous and you tell them to be careful. The young'uns tell you to do something that is anatomically impossible.

You're cruising along an empty highway, no one behind you for a mile, when a driver whips out in front of you and slows to a crawl, forcing you to become part of his procession.

Call it ignorance, selfishness, insensitivity, arrogance -- it's all of this and more. It's just plain rude.

Rotten behavior, so prevalent these days, was in the spotlight last week because of a new survey by a nonprofit group called Public Agenda. The survey asked 2,013 people around the nation, including Florida, for their views on the manners of Americans.

What a shock: Nearly eight out of 10 said there is such a lack of respect and courtesy that it is a serious problem in our society. Maybe it pales when compared to terrorist bombings, a reeling economy and nonstop mayhem in the Middle East, but this problem is more likely than those to impact your daily life.

It's hardly a new issue. Ask the parents and grandparents of baby boomers how they viewed the antics of their precious offspring during the '60s when they were burning bras, draft cards and college administration buildings. It's a sweet irony that many of those wacky teens are today's grandparents, complaining about the younger generation's behavior.

Something has changed, though. So many people today have so little patience and humor with each other, especially with strangers in public.

The experts have a number of theories why this is happening. Some say Americans are so busy that we're stressed out and cranky, while others say we're so much more mobile these days that we don't connect with each other. It's easier to be rude to someone you'll never see again.

Many regular folks, like David Walling of Beverly Hills, say the problem is that parents are no longer teaching manners at home.

"That should be the parents' obligation, but they're too busy making money," he said.

Walling was ahead of the curve when, several years ago, he penned a 15-page letter to then incoming President Clinton offering ideas for his new administration. Among them was a call for teachers in Grades 3 through 12 to spend at least one hour a week teaching manners and consideration of others.

Obviously, Clinton had other priorities. He never took up Walling's suggestion.

In Crystal River, Ruth Sprague spoke to Times reporter Alex Leary about the rudeness she endures every day on her job as a school crossing guard. Drivers are so eager to get to their destination, she said, that they seem to take personal offense when she holds them up to let school kids cross.

"They don't want to wait. They try to kill you," said the 67-year-old from Dunnellon.

Some of the kids are rude, too. Instead of waiting for her to stop traffic, they barge into the street. One boy refused to get off his bike when Sprague asked him to do so. Instead, he called her vulgar names.

It's not entirely bleak, however. Ahuguette Gauthier, the owner of Joe's Family Restaurant in Inverness, praised the people she encounters every day.

"Most of our customers are retired, and they're all sweethearts," she said. "We serve about 1,000 meals and maybe one person a month is rude."

Gauthier moved here from Fort Lauderdale seven years ago, so she knows all about rude. She noticed the difference in behavior right away.

"We were fixing up the restaurant, my clothes were dirty and I had paint on them, my jeans were ripped, and I had to go to Winn-Dixie for something," she recalled. "People said "Hi' to me and they smiled. In Fort Lauderdale, they wouldn't even look at you."

Maybe there is hope for us, after all.

To quote that unlikely social statesman and drugged-up LAPD punching bag, Rodney King: Can't we all just get along?

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