The obnoxious cell phone user in the grocery store checkout line. The aggressive driver who cuts us off in traffic. The conniving co-worker who takes credit for our idea.

There are more than enough jerks to go around.

From bullying on the playground and in the workplace to abusing handicapped parking privileges to language packed with enough four-letter words it would make people at your granddad's Navy reunion blush. Yes, civility seems to be at an all-time low. Rudeness reigns in our stressed and impatient society.

Not surprising, a Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows Utahns don't think we are as nice to each other as we were 10 years ago, although ironically, most don't consider themselves any less well-mannered or polite.

According to the survey conducted by Dan Jones & Associates, 67 percent of respondents say people have definitely or probably become less civil during the past decade. Only 11 percent say Utahns are more civil, while 14 percent didn't discern a difference.

Of those who perceived the community as less civil, more than 90 percent identified language, driving and cell phone use as areas where manners have definitely slipped. Others listed were dress, table manners, customer service, youth sports and e-mail.

On the other hand, nearly half, 45 percent, say they personally have become more civil, while 37 percent see themselves as unchanged.

"People, in general, in surveys see the problem but very seldom do they see themselves as part of the problem," said P.M. Forni, director of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University.

Forni, an authority on civil behavior, has written two books on the subject, "Choosing Civility" and a follow-up titled "The Civility Solution" due out in June. The former contains 25 rules of considerate conduct, while the latter includes the "Terrible Ten" rudest behaviors and how to deal with them. He identified schools, workplaces and roads as places that seem to bring out the worst in people.

"When we talk about good manners, first and foremost, we do not talk about which fork to choose for the salad," he said. "We're talking about how we treat one another."

And why should we bother with civility, good manners and politeness?

Because, Forni says, the quality of our lives is at stake.

"Social skills make us likable. Being likable allows us to enjoy good relationships. Good relationships allow us to improve the quality of our lives.

"Our social skills determine our destiny. It's as simple as that."

A growing number of businesses have taken to reminding customers to be considerate, especially when it comes to cell phone use.

"We will be happy to serve you as soon as your cell phone conversation has ended. Thank you for your consideration," reads the sign at Sugarhouse Barbeque Company.

Managers posted the sign to keep chatty customers from holding up the popular eatery's long lunch-hour line.

"It's hard to say whether it's really made a difference or not," said assistant manager Miriam Mortensen. "I have seen people get off their cell phones and apologize."

Pharmacist Eric Loveridge doesn't have a cell phone sign at Dick's Pharmacy in Bountiful. He just waits for patrons to end the call before turning his attention to them. "It doesn't do any good to try to explain something to someone while they're having a conversation with Uncle Joe," he said.

Though Loveridge and Mortensen said it isn't a huge problem, cell phone use does irritate customers waiting to place orders.

"Every single action of our lives has consequences for others, and we should care about that," Forni said.

Although people are hard-wired for empathy, they are not born with the ability to put that instinct into everyday practice, Forni said.

"We need to learn that. Someone needs to teach us," he said.

Traditionally, that teaching occurred at the family dinner table. As parents taught their children to eat with their mouths closed, they also conveyed the ethical rule that their actions affect others.

"Good manners are the training wheels of altruism," Forni said. "They are very important because it is the initial exposure to the principal of ethical behavior for young children."

Manners are still taught today but not as seriously or extensively as in the past. Busy, stressed parents often don't have the physical or emotional energy to teach their children considerate conduct. And they may not be the best examples themselves.

"If nobody's teaching you to be civil, it's fairly easy to fall into the behavior pattern of being less civil," said Utah State University special education professor Richard West, who, like Forni, laments the demise of the family dinner table.

West, executive director of USU's Center for the School of the Future, considers himself more than a casual observer of human interactions, especially in school settings.

"Civility has taken a backseat to brash behavior, abrupt behavior and winning," he said. "A lot of this has to do with our celebration of competition over collaboration."

Incivility raises its head in all kinds of public forums, such as city council meetings and legislative committee meetings where even those invited to testify end up being berated.

"There ought to be a way for us to allow competition in the marketplace of ideas without giving up civil discourse and respect," West said. "We tend to look at all opinions as right or wrong, rather than looking at the gradations within them."

The days of respectfully disagreeing are gone. "Now it seems these are all battles to the death," he said. "I think it's a tragic condition we find ourselves in."

Forni contends the decline of good manners began with the counterculture movement in the 1960s when the old ethic of self-discipline gave way to a new ethic of self-esteem and self-expression.

A lot of good came from questioning authority. People needed to express themselves.

"But in the last 40 years, as we were making strides toward a more just society, we were also becoming more and more self-absorbed," he said.

Society has succeeded at instilling self-esteem in children but not self-restraint, Forni said.

Good manners, he says, are about the most democratic thing there is because we're supposed to treat everyone the same regardless of status or position.

West calls the "me generation" passe but says we're in "an era of what's good for me, rather than focusing on what I can do to help other people."

Rather than look outwardly, people look inwardly, he said. They become fixed on an outcome with no regard for how it's achieved. They take the path of least resistance.

"When we think about what can I do to contribute to the life of someone else, all of a sudden civility makes sense," he said.

"Imagine what a different world we'd have if kids learned these skills at home and came to school really prepared to become civil learners."

Children behaving aggressively and bullying made Forni's list of 10 rudest behaviors. Behavior problems in schools are well documented.

Schools at all levels fail to help students become good people, West said. "I don't find much evidence we are actually teaching civil behavior. We aren't teaching social skills."

Some teachers and administrators believe schools need help with student behavior problems. But what students need, according to West, is help with school and family problems.

"Students need teachers who are more inclined to whisper than they are to criticize, and more inclined to teach and support than they are to punish and exclude," according to West's colleague Matthew Taylor.

Getting tough on children behaving badly is simply another example of being uncivil, West said.

The center's four-year study of a local Utah school district found schools excelled socially and academically if four factors existed: the presence of a trusted adult; clarity in expectations; emphasis on building academic, social and self-management skills; and rewards and recognition.

Education, he said, is so focused on attaining traditional outcomes, it has "failed to recognize we are losing part of our character."

Forni, too, says teaching students social skills needs more emphasis in schools.

"We are very close to being able to demonstrate that social intelligence or relational competence is a better predictor of success in school and life than we measure with IQ," he said.

But it's not just children who need to be taught.

"I'm often asked to speak at high schools. Principals say, 'I want you to talk to our children.' I often say, 'No, I want to talk to your parents."'

Utah has a reputation for having rude drivers.

"We don't have the room on our freeways to do what's going on here," said California transplant Tanner Mackey, adding he often sees drivers "shoot the gap" between cars or "pingpong" off each other.

"They're a tad aggressive," he said. "They're not afraid to change lanes and ride you."

Mackey said a driver recently pulled up next to him and called him a "jackass" for going the speed limit.

Streets and highways are known theaters of incivility. The question, Forni says, is why.

"In traffic, you have stress and anonymity coming together to cause a very volatile mixture," he said. "We're both anonymous and protected in the steel cocoons of our cars, and we think we can get way with anything."

Utah Highway Patrol trooper Roger Griffis sees it every day as he cruises the interstates in Salt Lake Valley. Tailgating and darting in and out of traffic are common bad habits he sees.

Driver impatience often emerges on freeway onramps controlled with traffic signals. When Griffis pulls them over, he says motorists tell him the "people in front are too slow."

Some drivers, he said, don't take kindly to being stopped.

"I don't argue with them anymore," he said. "I tell them to argue with the judge."

Politeness can be perceived as weakness, especially in the cutthroat corporate world where confrontation is often the rule of business.

"There is this perception, that isn't true, that nice guys finish last. My answer to that is not if they're smart. Smart and nice are a winning combination in our society," Forni said.

Intelligence might open the door to a job, but down the line, the person with the better social skills will have made greater strides in the company, he said.

"Social skills strengthen social bonds, and we need social bonds to survive and to thrive," Forni said.

There are only two ways of being successful in life: treating others very badly or treating others very well.

Cheating and lying work until someone gets your number, he said. They also leave people with more enemies than friends.

People who are nice, Forni says, will in the long run have a network of associates and acquaintances who like and trust them.

Given the choice, he said, "Who would choose jerk over good guy?"


E-mail: romboy@desnews.com