The death of civility

As you can imagine, my line of work brings me into contact with a great number of jerks. They are oafish, hostile people who are full of wrong opinions and recognize no inhibitions in expressing them.

But enough about editors. Some of you readers are no treat, either. Everywhere modern life is depressingly uncivil _ witness the outbreak of bad manners that occurred on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in the debate over Iraq last week. They should have all been sent to bed without their supper.

What made society so crotchety is anyone’s guess, but certain features of modern life do seem to subvert common courtesy.

Cell phones interrupt us at every turn. The anonymity of e-mail allows people to fire off ignorant messages without first engaging their brains. (This is a terrible urge and I feel guilty every time I give into it). Talk radio employs seedy characters who run universities of the air offering degrees of rancor.

To add to all this, I have my own theory: I believe the decline in smoking has led to an increase in rudeness.

It appears to me that tobacco use at its peak _ while a filthy and disgusting habit _ nevertheless had a sedative effect on smokers. It also had the happy effect of killing off the grumpier folk before their time.

Now, curmudgeons live longer. Worse, they have nothing to do with their arms, which just flap at their sides without any purpose except to rise up at the mildest provocation to give someone the finger.

This is not good. Someone should do something about it. As it happens, someone has. Lynne Truss, the English wit and self-styled Queen of the Apostrophe, has written a book about “the utter bloody rudeness of the world today.”

Her book is called “Talk to the Hand,” a reference to an ill-mannered expression that sprang from TV’s “Jerry Springer Show,” sort of like a knuckle sandwich, I guess.

Truss mentions smoking only briefly and does not cite it as one the reasons for the demise of manners. She mentions the more usual suspects and offers many elegant theories from her extensive reading. It is an entertaining little book that is decidedly not a primer on etiquette. It is, she writes, “a big, systematic moan …”

That is a bit of a problem. Those of us who are married are perhaps a little jaded about moaning, systematic or otherwise. Her last book was The New York Times best-seller “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.” In that book, she gave the history and proper practice of punctuation, which was both educational and funny.

Her signature funny, frisky writing is still there, but at the end of day who cares why jerks are jerks? They just are _ and a good moaning is not going to deter them, as she herself recognizes. She could just as well have struck a popular chord by writing “Litterbugs Rule” or “The Old Pop Music Was Better Than Your Lousy Songs” _ all true, of course, but obvious.

In reading her book, I became afraid that she had become a bit of a jerk herself in denouncing jerks (an American word that this Englishwoman does not much use). For example, she takes issue with the use of the expression “no problem” by waiters and such. But, hey, this is practically the motto of Australia. Got a broken leg? Asteroids destroyed your house? Dingo ate your baby? No problems, mate!

She also takes a mild swipe at “the enforced perkiness of American service workers, for whom a positive attitude and excessive civility are nonnegotiable.” While perkiness is not one of my strengths, I think it beats the resentful, sullen attitude that is often the norm among waiters and shop assistants in England, where I lived for a number of years.

Yesterday, after enduring the sort of phone frustrations she denounces in her book, I reached her in Connecticut in the midst of her month-long book promotion in North America.

I am happy to report she was the soul of civility. Far from having become bitter with life, she said that writing this book was “wonderful fun” and “cathartic.” As for expressing more pet peeves in the future, “I’ve done my bit, as far as I am concerned, in trying to save the world.”

No problem, then.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His e-mail address is rhenry(at)