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Americans tend to trend too much

If something happens to happen three times with a high profile, it's supposedly sweeping the nation. In fact, we're no ruder than we were, and just as decent as always.

September 24, 2009|MEGHAN DAUM

As we should all know by now, three examples equals a trend. This summer, we saw the official declaration of the "no pants" trend, thanks to the sartorial exhibitionism of precisely three women: Victoria Beckham, Beyonce and Lady Gaga. Now that that's over, the trifecta du jour is rudeness. Everyone's doing it.

You don't need me to go over the details again. Suffice it to say: Serena Williams at the U.S. Open, South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson during President Obama's healthcare speech and rapper Kanye West at the MTV Video Music Awards.

Because these events happened in quick succession -- and because all three offending parties extended their rudeness with insufficient apologies -- the "trend" is almost a foregone conclusion: The whole world has gone irrevocably rude.

Forget swine flu, terror plots or the public option. The nation's greatest vexation, according to headlines and radio and TV talk-show hosts, is bad manners. A Rasmussen poll found 75% of a survey group of 1,000 believed that Americans were "becoming more rude and less civilized." Etiquette experts and sociologists have been called in to comment on the epidemic.

The culprits? A lack of emotional nuance engendered by blogging and texting, not to mention the generally churlish tone of the Internet. Mass culture that rewards obstreperousness and instant reactions while making little time for measured thought. Not yet cited as causes but no doubt still under consideration: the bad economy, mercury poisoning and cold, distant mothers.

As helpful as it is to be warned of such scourges, is "the new rudeness" new, and is it here to stay? Or, like the post-9/11 trends "the new nice" and "the new normal" -- and even a bit like "no pants" -- is it just another phantasm?

Sure, boorishness abounds, but at no time in history has it exactly been in short supply. It may be human nature to assume that bygone eras were more civilized than the barbaric present -- oh, those virtuous Victorians; oh, the repressed-but-gracious Eisenhower-era citizenry -- but let's not forget that, for example, the Victorians may have been too demure to tolerate the sight of a lady's ankles but they didn't blink an eye at children working like slaves in factories or debtors sentenced to squalid prisons. That might not technically qualify as rudeness, but it could be called barbarism. And it's a lot worse than anything even an uninhibited celebrity can do.

Still, it's instructive to follow the fortunes of "the rudeness epidemic" -- if only as a tutorial on how to turn happenstance into a national bellwether (a recent rigorous effort in this genre came from a New York Times writer who observed slight paunches on a few fashionable men and declared beer bellies the hip new accessory) and a testament to something most people can't seem to get enough of: public scoldings.

Is there anything more engaging than being told about the moral decay of society, especially when you can easily point to ways in which you are the exception to the shenanigans? Other people are wretched, but we ourselves are exemplary because, for instance, we refrain from stepping out of our cars in short skirts and no underwear.

But it's one thing to join in the fun of a public excoriation and another to decide that a menacing cultural virus has unleashed itself on the nation. After all, there are ways of discerning what is a trend and what is not. You can gather actual evidence, track more than one set of numbers and ask probing questions of a lot of people over time, rather than monitoring celebrity outbursts and getting a quick reaction. But because it's easier for bloggers, producers and writers (I know of what I speak) to start and finish with what friends say at dinner parties, we are left with a version of reality based more on "something in the air" than solid facts.

Does "the new rudeness" fall into this category? My dinner companions say yes. Amid the rude and uncivilized, they point out, are plenty of people who are polite and courteous. At any given time all over the world, folks are helping their neighbors, showing kindness to strangers and refraining from throwing their shoes at world leaders. So why isn't that a trend?

Maybe because, as the president suggested when he made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows over the weekend, reasonable discourse doesn't catch as many eyeballs on the news crawl as unbridled fits of rage. Or maybe because decency doesn't come in threes -- in fact, it's a lot more common than that. Then again, it could be that I'm dining with the wrong crowd.

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mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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