Last week a supermarket cashier refused to serve a customer who was speaking on a mobile phone. This small incident caused a major public debate in the UK (the Deputy Prime Minister was asked for his verdict, as was I). But as ever, the discussion gave rise to moral panic rather than serious consideration about the way in which societal changes are shaping our everyday behaviour. This is a shame because the incident could teach us a lot.
The first lesson is pretty obvious: technology is becoming increasingly invasive and this is having a considerable impact on our everyday behaviour. New technologies – headphones, mobiles and shortly Google glasses – interfere with our social interactions and can give rise to incivility. But it would be wrong to conclude that these innovations are inherently bad. The reality is that our codes of behaviour need to keep up. And those who develop technology should not be complacent about the social impact of their innovations. Adapting design to keep the anti-social impact of new devices in check (and to enhance their pro-social potential) should be relatively straightforward.
The second lesson is that context shapes behaviour, as we argued in Charm Offensive. People in happy environments behave better and are more considerate. You seldom see aggression or rudeness in a weekly farmer’s market, for example. Contrast that to the over-lit and austere environment of a supermarket and it is no surprise that our interactions at the checkout desk are poor.
The final lesson is about personal responsibility. There are a range of strategies for dealing with incivility. One is to ignore it, often the most common recourse in big, congested cities. The other is the proactive approach. But this does not imply aggression – a reaction that is likely to lead to greater tension and potentially conflict. A more constructive and effective approach is what we called positive reciprocity in Charm Offensive: make people aware of their lack of consideration but do so in the friendliest and most polite manner. Then you will see results.
Phoebe Griffith is one of the authors of Charm Offensive, and worked at The Young Foundation as Head of External Relations and Programme Leader from 2010-2012. She currently works with a range of clients on strategy,
Hear Phoebe speak about incivility on BBC Radio London (starts 19.49).