Why don’t we collect data to see whether we have become more rude or uncivil rather than rely on anecdotes?

NPR ran a story the other day about how American culture is becoming more casual and less polite. This is not an uncommon story: every so often, different news organizations will run something similar, often focusing on the decreasing use of manners like saying “please” and “you’re welcome.” Here is the main problem I have with these articles: what kind of data could we look at to evaluate this argument? These stories tend to rely on experts who provide anecdotal evidence or their own interpretation. In this piece, these are the three experts: “a psychiatrist and blogger,” “a sophomore at the College of Charleston — in the South Carolina city that is often cited as one of the most courteous in the country,” and “etiquette maven Cindy Post Senning, a director of the Emily Post Institute in Burlington, Vt.”

There is one data point cited in this story:

Research backs up Smith’s anecdotal observations. In 2011, some 76 percent of people surveyed by Rasmussen Reports said Americans are becoming more rude and less civil.

Interestingly, this statistic is about perceptions. Perceptions may be more important than reality in many social situations. But I could imagine another scenario about these perceptions: older generations tend to think that younger generations (often their children and grandchildren?) are less mannered and don’t care as much about social etiquette. As this story suggests, perhaps the manners are simply changing – instead of saying “you’re welcome,” younger people give the dreaded “sure.”

There has to be some way to measure this. It would be nice to do this online or in social media but the problem is that face-to-face rules don’t apply there. Perhaps someone has recorded interactions at McDonald’s or Walmart registers? In whatever setting a researcher chooses, you would want to observe a broad range of people to look for patterns by age, occupation, gender, race, education level (though some of this would have to come through survey or interview data with the people being observed).

In my call for data, I am not disagreeing with the idea that traditional manners and civility have decreased. I just want to see data that suggests this rather than anecdotes and observations from a few people.

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