Dan Simon posts thoughtfully about the cultural differences between the U.S. and Canada. (The item link doesn’t seem to work, so here’s the general link; the item itself is Sunday the 3rd.) He notes American rudeness (which he attributes to a kind of solipsism) as one important difference.

I wonder whether this doesn’t paint with too broad a brush. Having lived most of my life in the BosWash corridor, I have been struck by how much less rude the rest of the country is than I’m used to. Los Angeles, where I now live, is a huge step up in civility from the East Coast cities I’m used to — Baltimore, Washington, New York, or Boston — (Philadelphia is a little bit nicer than any of these) — and my impression is that most of the rest of the country is a full degree nicer (in routine stranger-to-stranger personal interactions) than Los Angeles.

That raises the sociological question of why the differences arose and persist, and the policy question of what, if anything, could be done about it. Israel had a public-awareness campaign some years ago designed to address its truly legendary levels of incivility, and an Israeli student told me it had some actual impact, but I haven’t seen a study.

Naturally, those who live all their lives in rude environments don’t much notice, unless and until they spend some time in non-rude environments. (In my case, a year teaching in Rochester, which is culturally Midwestern, was the eye-opener.) New Yorkers are aware of their rudeness, but tend to conflate it with the toughness that is part of their positive self-image. Residents of Baltimore, Washington, and Boston seem mostly unaware of it. But even noticing the problem may not be much of a step toward a solution.

It’s a classic multiple-equilibrium situation. Being much ruder than your environment has big disadvantages, and so does being much more polite. In addition, encountering rudeness is annoying, and rudeness is one consequence of being annoyed. I’m substantially nicer in Los Angeles than I was in Boston (though probably not up to local standards) but it takes about fifteen seconds in Washington to get me back into full jerk mode. You got a problem with that, buddy?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: