Riding home on the metro a few weeks ago, I was one of many San Franciscan sardines commuting after a long day at work. As was to be expected with the abrupt stop-and-gos of the train and the complete lack of personal space, my fellow passengers and I accepted that things were going to get physical. I held a pole for balance while my other arm held an open book in front of my chest. My goal was to take up as little of the horizontal plane as possible.
A quarter of the way into my ride, our train came to a screeching halt between stops. We were thrown into each other then bounced away on impact. Returning from my bounce, I was met with the stern face of the man next to me. His eyes widened.
“Don’t! DO NOT step on my shoes again.”
I looked back at him and then the people around us. Unsure how to respond, I nodded my head and went back to my book. But I couldn’t pay attention to the words on the page. The man’s words had taken over my brain.
How could he possibly have thought I was doing it on purpose? I wondered. It happened once. What should I have said in response?
It wasn’t as much what the man had said, but the way he had said it. It was raw. Rude. And left no room for response. It was as if he had yelled into a vacuum. Except, the vacuum was my face.
His statement may have been better suited for Twitter:
Overcome with an irrational desire to reconcile our differences, I finally looked up from my book and back at him. “You realize I obviously wasn’t doing it intentionally,” I said as if we knew each other.
Now it was his turn not to respond. Without acknowledging my comment, he exited the train at the next stop.
The second he did, I looked at the people who had been around us. “Public transit is not the right choice if you’re concerned about people stepping on your shoes,” I said to no one in particular. The no ones chuckled.
At first, I attributed the man’s rudeness to workday stress or the psychology of big cities..
But since that evening, I’ve witnessed countless other examples of unquestionable rudeness in both intimate and large settings, cities, and situations. Time and again — at a church, on a plane, in an academic building, at a restaurant — people seemingly failed to recognize social cues or simply didn’t care that the strangers they encountered were actual people. They said and did things that were completely inappropriate for face-to-face interaction. They were volcanoes exploding with rudeness.
It hasn’t always been like this, has it?
But given my recent observations, I can’t help but wonder whether the internet is also making us more rude in person.
The same way we unapologetically send off an emotionally charged email, politically charged Facebook status, or sadistically charged Tweet, are we becoming more comfortable with sending off rude comments IRL? Is this miserable social media norm transforming into an offline social norm as well? In a recent national survey, 70% of people blamed technology for the spike in real-world disrespect.
Beyond my anecdotes, there are scientific reasons to believe that this might be the case.
In his expansive research on multi-tasking in tech, Stanford Professor Clifford Nass found that the brains of “high-tech jugglers” may be in trouble. “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.”
Each time we communicate with real humans, we’re switching contexts, likely from something electronic. We’re turning our attention away from our email inbox, away from our Facebook feed, away from the text we’re writing in order to speak or listen to the person in front of us. Most of the time, we don’t turn our attention fully away. It’s a sad fact, but one we can’t ignore.
In our attempts to juggle online and offline communication, we might be bringing the antisocial rude behaviors of the internet into the real world. If we struggle to switch from one online task to another, what’s to say that we don’t struggle to switch from robotic internet communication to emotional real-life communication? Our 140-character lives are affecting our personal character.
While some may argue that rudeness is difficult to control online, there’s certainly something we can do about it offline.
How can we stop the rudeness?
There’s no place to report real people as offensive or block them altogether. However, we can be the ones to lead by example, to take it in stride, and to politely remind our rude community members that we too, are fellow humans. Unlike many of the other problems we face as a community, this is one we can rather easily and effectively solve.
We can consider our platforms and understand our environments before we dive in.
Put another way: Whether you’re communicating online or off, go for Likes.