AML in Print

Where are we headed

By Nick Driver
Of The Examiner Staff
April 2001

Rudeness today is tomorrow's status quo: Get used to it.

Sociologists and politeness trainers say we are rude because our numbers are growing, as well as our diversity. Others blame an American individualism with a San Francisco touch. Still more point fingers at a business caste with an entrepreneurial DNA that rewards breaking corporate rules.

Whatever the cause, the effect is not going away anytime soon. San Francisco's population has risen 7.3 percent during the past 10 years, to 776,000, and is likely to grow as much during the next decade.

That puts the city's density level at an all-time high. U.S. Census figures place San Francisco's population density second in the nation after New York City, with our residences shoehorned in at up to 50 per acre.

How much space does that mean for you? At present, it's a manageable 1,400 square feet per person on average. But if the population continues to grow at today's rate, in the next two decades two-story houses will need to add a story; single stories will morph into two-story buildings.

And unlike other dense societies, such as India, Japan and China, American society focuses on the individual, say city planners. Nowhere is that individualism expressed with as much joyous noise as in San Francisco. We just need more space.

Unfortunately, our rugged individualism, combined with this newish cheek-by-jowl existence, can rapidly drive us crazy. One person's freedom of expression is another person's headache. One person's pet and closest companion is another person's attacker. Ever-popular SoMa raves are a senior-housing denizen's hours of sleep deprivation.

What is rude?

Case in point: "The meeting," an everyday business or social event.

In many Asian cultures, showing up late for meetings is considered a strong sign of disrespect. In many San Francisco subcultures, especially business settings, not to be punctual is considered a personal affront, too. But many of the twentysomething arrivistes -- who until the recent downturn were running dot-coms -- regard on-time arrivals as a fashion faux pas.

"Some of these guys running companies have no concept of what it means to be polite, and they have ruined business deals with their manners," said Lisa Mirza Grotts, a former protocol aide to Mayor Willie Brown who runs the local manners and protocol consulting firm AML Corp.

Mirza says her phone is ringing off the hook because such disasters occur frustratingly often. Other local etiquette trainers say their businesses also are booming.

Identifying with others

Mirza is not the only one who says we are stuck in the Land of Rude and Bias.

Some demographers and sociologists say the city's melting pot is a caldron waiting to boil over, driven in part by the erosion of traditional classes. One in four people in the United States has "strong negative attitudes" towards Asian Americans, a group that now makes up 31 percent of San Francisco, a survey found last month.

"The death of civility may stem from a deeper level -- the long-simmering resentment of people who were supposed to 'know their place,' " said Robert Thompson, professor of media and culture at Syracuse University.

Demographers blame rising incivility and crime, as well as skyrocketing prices, for the movement of 20,000 African Americans, one-quarter of their previous population, out of The City in the last decade. And for all races, elements of class and and an inherent mistrust of strangers can lead to rudeness or misunderstandings.

Some say San Francisco's unique blend of nonconformist behavior sometimes means ignoring the laws and rules that allow a city to operate smoothly.

"Rudeness is brought on by frustration, higher densities, uncomfortable weather, a lot of traffic, and also because all of us know that when we haven't had our nap, we get rude," says Thompson.


Meanwhile, the some 2 million of us who live or work in The City sometimes feel that the only way to avoid rude commuters is to stay home.

"If you drive, the roads are all clogged. If you take the trains, you can't get a seat. And if you ride your bike or walk, you are likely to get whacked," said Rich Allen, an exasperated commuter who nevertheless practices all three forms of torture.

It's no better once we get to the office. Computers, already a common conversational tool, will soon overtake the voice as the primary form of communication in businesses, says Mirza. The more we use machines to do our communicating, the worse we will become at understanding how to interact with others, she says, which will lead to even more rudeness.

Still, even though San Francisco may grow more boorish, most believe bad manners are a relatively minor irritant in a city with unacceptable levels of violent crime. Eventually, these optimists say, we will either all kill each other, or our closer quarters and enforced downsizing will lead us to follow more rules -- if we can agree on new ones.

"Etiquette has rules to be followed just like golf, tennis or traffic law," said Mirza. "The difference is the rules change as we evolve."

World of difference

And before you give up on us and consider relocating your business, emigrating abroad, or moving to some low-density Midwest capital, take a look at Asia. If San Francisco had highrises and was as densely populated as Hong Kong, the entire Bay Area population of 7 million could fit into one-quarter of the city, said Jim Chappell, president of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association.

Western visitors to China, Japan and Vietnam, among the countries with the highest population-to-land rates in the world, often are amazed at how people get along while living on top of one another.

Granted, there is less personal space than here. In China it is not considered rude to inquire about one's salary, scold neighbors for poor child upbringing, or tie up traffic by gathering at the scene of an accident.

But as most Bay Area commuters know, accident rubbernecking is now de rigeur. We have Web sites that have "invaded" the once-taboo area of industry salaries, pinpointing executive, creative and technical workers with remarkable accuracy. And China certainly has no monopoly on educational moralizing.

One answer to the future of rude behavior can be found in the densely-packed Chinese capital of Beijing. An enterprising company specializes in issuing apologies on behalf of Beijing residents who are too ashamed to do it themselves. Business is way up.

If it's looking to expand, San Francisco could be an ideal location.

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