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The Civility Glut.

The professional chin-strokers and morality-mavens keep telling us America could use a little more civility. To which I say--with all due respect, of course--heck no, what we've got here is a civility glut.

Take your morning news on CNN, where the expert of the moment--some former deputy assistant secretary of such-and-such--is being hauled away after his ninety-second interview.

"Thank you," says the anchorperson.

"Thank you," insists the former deputy assistant secretary.

"Appreciate it," the anchorperson retaliates.

Who knows where this frenzy of competitive gratitude would take us if the former deputy assistant secretary were not peremptorily replaced with a Geico commercial?

Here's my personal favorite: I call some corporate bureaucracy and, whether out of loneliness or confusion, opt for "0"--the chance to speak to an actual human. "Kelly" or "Tracey" wants to know my account number, which I willingly share.

"Great!" says Kelly.

Next she wants to know my zip code, and it turns out to be "perfect!"

Or suppose I'm calling a publishing company and get an administrative assistant with a pricey British accent. When I tell her my phone number, she declares that it's "brilliant!"

I should be flattered, of course, to be associated with such an admirable collection of numbers. But unless these ladies are mathematicians who have speedily determined that my zip code is a perfect square and my account number is the exact distance in light years between here and the nearest ongoing supernova, then I see no reason to comment on them. My zip code is OK at best, my account number a little stodgy, and nothing you say, Kelly, can make me swell with pride when I recite them.

Or consider the standard, all-purpose sign-off, "Have a nice day!" There were grumblings when this one took hold--sometime in the '70s, I think--and you still see a surly bumper sticker now and then warning, "Don't tell me what kind of a day to have!" No one, however, is complaining about the recent escalation to "Have a great day" or "Have a really great day."

You might think it would be enough to commend a departing companion to the care of an omnipotent deity, as in "good-bye," which is shorthand for "god be with you." But compared to the competition, "goodbye" has come to sound dismissive or even impertinent. It has no future. In fact, the day will come when one of the tearful lovers will cry out to the other, as they are torn from each others' arms by rival clan members, "Have a really great day, Romeo!"

There's a point to civility, of course, and I know this because I lived for many years in a land untouched by etiquette in any form--not New York, New York, as you may imagine, but Long Island, New York, where one is considered remiss for failing to give the finger to any motorist one happens to pass. Having moved to a small, Southern town, I've learned to appreciate the old-fashioned habit of lubricating all business transactions with a few leisurely observations about the weather and the upcoming game. I am even glad, in a way, when strangers randomly encountered on the phone express pleasure when learning of my mother's maiden name and otherwise seem to approve of my presence on Earth.

But civility is also about class, and hence about forms of exclusion and oppression that are, at bottom, extremely impolite. Much of our current idea of etiquette was invented a little over 400 years ago in the royal courts of Europe, largely for the purpose of foiling any would-be intruders from the merchant class. It wasn't a foolproof system, since social climbers could always master the upper class's politesse, which included, at the beginning, such easy-to-learn rules as: Don't relieve yourself at the dinner table; don't blow your nose into your napkin. To outwit the merely middle class, the upper crust kept elaborating the rules and multiplying the requisite statements of deference--and the middle class kept scrambling to keep up.

There's nothing aristocratic, though, about today's civility glut. Kelly at Citibank isn't angling for an invitation to my next black-tie event; she's been trained, like a majority of American service workers, to exude a "positive attitude," and she's being taped to make sure there are no lapses in perkiness. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest private employer, uses videotapes to instruct its employees in the art of "aggressive hospitality"--meaning the in-your-face, what-can-I-do-for-you smile. Even CNN's unctuous Bill Hemmer and Leon Harris dwell in a corporate hierarchy (Time-Warner-CNN-AOL, etc.), where it is difficult to succeed without sycophancy.

Hence the edge of hostility that overlays so many examples of corporate-mandated civility, as in competitive thanking and the escalation of sign-off directives. Or take the cruel new locution "I sure don't!"--delivered in a tone of blithe cheer even when the question was whether she might have any seats available on the last flight out of the doomed volcanic island.

It isn't easy being perky all day to people you don't know and probably wouldn't like if you did. In fact, as Arlie Hochschild wrote in The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling (University of California, 1983), the effort can be decidedly stressful. At Wal-Mart, the really considerate floor clerks are the ones who ignore you, for your own sake as well as theirs. They know that "aggressive hospitality" sounds like "aggressive hostility" for a reason: One of its functions is to put potential shoplifters on notice that they're being watched.

Real civility is not forced. It thrives among equals and proceeds from a deep-down sense of well-being. To nurture it, we'd need better pay all around (and especially in the underpaid service industry), a more leisurely pace of work, and corporate hierarchies that reward performance over brown-nosing.

There's a difference, after all, between civility and servility.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The Progressive.
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Author:Ehrenreich, Barbara
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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