Front Porch | The decline of civility and need for renewal
At a commercial bank, a woman in her 20s pulls into a parking space clearly reserved for the disabled. When told it was a handicap spot she breezily responded, “I know,” sauntering into the bank, leaving two toddlers in the car who should not have been left unaccompanied.
She knew that parking in the handicap spot was illegal. She didn’t care. It suited her convenience.
Near the Mall at Marathon, a man makes a slow and illegal u-turn. The turn was slow because he was chatting on his cell, with one hand on the steering wheel and the other one glued to his telephone.
At a fast food outlet, while standing on line to be served following a swim at the beach, a young woman in her 20s loudly asks her teenage female friend whether she had washed her genitals, using colorful language referencing the female genitals.
While quite a number of the motorists on New Providence are considerate, a large number treat the roadways and parking spaces as their personal space, self-absorbed and indifferent to the needs of fellow motorists.
Many haphazardly pull into parking spaces in a manner that blocks another motorist from also parking. Others pull into spaces clearly marked no parking
The self-absorbed excuse often used to justify such selfishness and blatant disregard: “I’ll be right back.” Translation: “To hell with you; this suits my convenience” and “My needs are more important than yours.”
Watch for it: most people drive the way they think. Most of the road rage is not by considerate drivers. Watch also how other shoppers manoeuvre their carts through a grocery story. Some ensure that they are not blocking others while some invariably obliviously block the aisles as if they are alone in the store.
At a popular grocery store, a young man leaves his trolley in the middle of the aisle with no care as to the needs of other shoppers. At the checkout, instead of politely pushing it through he abandons it in front of the cashier’s stand, waiting for someone else to return the cart he used.
What do these and other stories of incivility, public rudeness and self-absorbed habits suggest? Here’s another case to consider.
Go to Queen Street downtown and observe Bahamians lined up to get a U.S. visa. The line is orderly, there is little noise and Bahamians are on their best behavior. Why is this? Context and group norms matter, as well as social rewards and sanctions, more on which later.
A dear friend’s sister who saw two of her students on the line, remarked at how well-behaved they were, somewhat in contrast to how they sometimes act when in class. Their response: “We know how to behave.”
Why do many of the same people who blatantly disregard various civilities at home near instantly observe such civilities when overseas? What is the switching mechanism in which we can turn on and off certain kinds of behaviour depending on the social context?
The introduction of a seatbelt law took quite some time with successive governments worried about the backlash from a large number of Bahamians. Yet many of these same people quickly buckled up when they travelled to the U.S.
Though a good number of Bahamians still refuse to wear seatbelts or wear them intermittently, the police, charged to help monitor compliance with the new law, were surprised at how quickly a large number of Bahamians were buckling up.
Bahamians are by and large not cigarette smokers, though there is a troubling push to market locally-assembled cigarettes to the public, promoting it as fashionable.
We have largely eschewed smoking as a social habit, which speaks to the power of group norms in positively or negatively sanctioning various habits. We are, however, heavy drinkers.
Long Island is a telling study in social norms. In contrast to many government-operated high schools in New Providence and various Family Islands, there is an expectation that students will graduate with a diploma and with a certain minimum grade point average.
It isn’t just a matter of classroom sizes. Schools in the Family Islands with small classroom numbers often do not do as well as the Long Island schools.
Long Islanders – parents, teachers, staff and the wider community – expect their school children to graduate. There is also peer pressure not to be left behind. It is unfashionable to leave school without a diploma.
Yet here in New Providence in the government-operated school system, there is little to no stigma attached to a low grade point average or failing to leave school with a diploma.
A friend tells of attending various social occasions on Long Island with residents usually standing in line waiting their turn to be served, noting that on New Providence and various other islands there might be chaos and line-jumping.
When walking into a bank or office, Bahamians routinely say “Good morning” or “Good afternoon”, a civility that appears not to have lost social currency.
Why do we observe some civilities, norms and mores while ignoring others? The proximate answer has to do with what is tolerated. At the same grocery store referenced earlier, there is an area at the front of the store on the outside clearly marked no parking.
Those inconsiderate shoppers too lazy to park in properly designated spots flout the sign partly because they know that there will be no consequence for their actions. Security personnel at this and other businesses routinely fail to ask those parked illegally to remove their vehicles.
Meanwhile, a friend told me that he will never park his car in the lower lot of the main post office and go off to do errands downtown. After his car was twice towed he got the message.
The reality is that many of us often know better. But we are often slack and uncivil and inconsiderate at home because we like it so and more importantly we can get away with such inconsideration with little to no consequence for our poor behaviour.
Next week: More on the environmental threats to The Bahamas.