Restoring civility

If Kawartha Lakes feels a lot less polite, we can do something about that

By Nancy Payne

It’s a summer Monday at the post office on Cambridge Street in Lindsay. The lineup stretches to the outside doors, and it’s not moving. Those close enough to the front can hear muttered conversation at the desk. Seems a newly installed printer is churning out blank pages instead of the money order the customer needs. One staff member is flipping through the machine’s manual while speaking to Canada Post tech support. Another apologizes to the customer for keeping her waiting. A sign notes that there might be delays as a result of new programs and equipment.

People in the lineup shift their weight and look at their phones. Frustration hangs in the air. A middle-aged man walks up to the front of the line, stops, heaves a theatrically disgusted sigh, glares at the staff and returns to his spot. Minutes pass. The line grows longer.

The same man does the same thing, only this time he has a message. “Everybody knows you never put new equipment in place until you make sure it’s working properly. That’s basic business. This is ridiculous.” He storms out without hearing or acknowledging the obvious: employees had no choice about equipment Canada Post had provided and were doing their best while, unlike the man, staying professional and outwardly calm.

Almost everyone has a similar story (or several of them) about how much ruder people seem to be lately — about how much faster, more easily and more publicly they hurl their anger and frustration at others. Maybe you’ve felt your blood boil when someone nipped into a parking space you had your eye on, or cringed while watching a customer berating a cashier over something negligible. If you feel like public interactions in our community and elsewhere have become a lot less polite over the past few years, you’re not alone.

The signs posted in businesses and government offices all over Kawartha Lakes bear out that impression. Such signs were unknown until recently, but now, almost anywhere there are customers, there are signs with some variation on “Disrespectful attitudes and aggressive behaviour will not be tolerated,” or, taking another tack, “Thank you for being kind.” It’s easy to read between the lines; after all, nobody feels the need to post such notices if all is sweetness and light.

The surge in rudeness isn’t surprising after all we’ve been through since March 2020, says Jack Veitch, manager of community engagement and education with the local Canadian Mental Health Association. As the initial “heroic” phase of the pandemic — remember “We’re all in this together”? — gave way to the realization that we didn’t know when it would end, and trust in public figures was battered by misinformation, the pressure changed us.

We’ve all been living with an extraordinary amount of stress for much longer than we expected, Veitch notes, whether that’s related to work, our families’ health, or our kids’ schooling. “Some of that is still playing out,” he says, pointing to rising prices and a looming recession. “And that distress doesn’t always present itself as sadness. Sometimes it’s confrontational.”

When we’re feeling worried, fearful and helpless, the tension builds up. Eventually it has to go somewhere, and the tiniest of frustrations pushes us over the edge into rudeness. “Our society is acting as children act who have experienced chronic stress,” says Wendy Kelly, a private practitioner who operates a local clinic in child and adolescent psychology.

She points to a model known as the window of tolerance. When things are going well and we’re within that window, we’re able to be open, curious and flexible. We’re thinking clearly and calmly. But when we’re stressed, Kelly says, that window starts to narrow, and we edge into either hyper-arousal — hello fight or flight — or hypo-arousal, in which we freeze.

Feeling overwhelmed, as many of us have been for what feels like forever, can push us into behaviour we didn’t think we were capable of. “Fight leads to antisocial and aggressive tendencies; flight, to anxiety and avoidance or escapism, including addictions; and freeze to inaction, passivity and depression,” Kelly says.

Noticing when we’re reaching the limits of our window of tolerance is a big first step, says Veitch. If you feel your heart starting to pound, your neck or jaw stiffens or your stomach tenses, or you’re inadvertently clenching your fists, that tells you you’re on the brink.

“If you slow your breathing, you’ll think more clearly,” he says, suggesting that when we realize we’re about to snap, to try what’s known as box breathing: breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds and hold that for four seconds. Those few moments will help ease some of the physical tension and clear the mind. “I always remind people that if you can regulate your breathing, you can regulate your heart.”

Another technique is to shift your attention away from the thing that’s making you tense. “Ask yourself, what are five things I can hear right now, five things I can smell, five things I can see,” Veitch says. He also recommends making sure we look after the things we can control: eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep.

When it comes to situations outside our control, like the belligerent man in the post office, our options are different. It’s not helpful to tell an angry person to calm down, Veitch says, which can feel to them like they’re being dismissed or patronized. Yelling at someone who’s already yelling will only escalate the situation.

If you feel comfortable intervening, you can start by affirming what the person is feeling — perhaps something like, “I understand. I’m frustrated with the delay too,” offers Veitch, while stressing “I’d hate for people to feel they have to respond in a situation if they felt uncomfortable or unsafe.”

Hard as it is, says Kelly, trying to empathize with the person being rude is critical. “We don’t have to like the behaviour, but we need to consider its underlying roots. To rebuild community, we must care for the perpetrator as much as the victim.”

To restore civility, both experts say, we have to recognize the things that get under our skin, and work on controlling how we react. We also need to remind ourselves that even someone spewing rudeness is a human being — a metaphorical neighbour and perhaps a literal one. It’s an idea that’s too often lost in the age of hot takes on social media, where we’re comfortable sneering at someone we’ve never met and whose circumstances we don’t know. “We need to be able to disagree in a way that’s respectful,” says Veitch. “Disrespectful communication can be consequential.”

And even if we can’t quite bring ourselves to be nice to someone who’s making life miserable for a server or cashier, we can still offer them something kind and supportive when it’s our turn, he says. That way the worker bearing the brunt of other people’s stress also has positive interactions to remember at the end of the day.

Back in the post office, the wisdom of that approach is borne out almost immediately. When the next customer finally gets to the wicket, the first words out of her mouth are, “I’m so sorry you had to deal with that guy.” Civility, it turns out, is alive and well after all.

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