Lack of civility defines today's culture. From excessive name dropping to chatting loudly at a cafe, individuals often seem unaware of their surroundings and frequently behave inappropriately. Usually, there are consequences for misbehavior: Say something rude to someone face-to-face, for example, and you might expect a physical altercation; act in an impolite manner in a social setting and you can incur reputational damage. Active users of social media are aware of online trolling. Online anonymity, however, removes these costs and enables bad manners.
In her book, Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck, Amy Alkon explains the growth of incivility by invoking Robin Dunbar’s principle regarding the "small bands" in which humans evolved. Small bands are defined by daily face-to-face interactions wherein people must self-monitor their behaviors lest they be ostracized.
In contemporary urban settings, the risk of such human mitigation is largely absent. Thus, there is a mismatch between the small bands in which humans evolved and modern living. The online world affords people anonymity; large cities offer similar “protection” in the offline world by fragmenting groups. This mismatch yields new forms of bad-mannered behaviors.
Here, then, are two tips for helping to reduce bad manners in yourself and others:
- Treat others like a close neighbor.To encourage civility, Alkon suggests that we start treating strangers as though they were our close neighbors. According to her, we need to behave in ways that bring random strangers into our own Dunbar circle. This is similar to Peter Singer’s suggestion that we bring animals into our moral circle, as a means of improving animal welfare. By pretending we know them, we will be less likely to perpetuate bad behavior against them.
- Encourage feeling personally connected.In other words, foster a personal touch with strangers. Consider the inconsiderate person who assumes your lawn can serve as their dogs’ toilet. Alkon suggests (literally) placing eyespots on your mailbox! This “tricks” the perpetrators' minds into feeling that they may be being watched. (Haley & Fessler, 2005 have documented how eyespots increase people’s generosity in an economic setting.)