The Paradox of Civility, or, “why is this place filled with such rude assholes?”

There was a strange and compelling article on Medium this week, reflecting on the author’s experience of being a devotee of Whole Foods, the self-certifying purveyors of ‘natural’ produce who will surely expand in the UK at some point. The author was at great pains to make clear how much he loves Whole Foods:

I’ve shopped at Whole Foods in every time zone, in at least 10 different cities: LA, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Austin, Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, DC and Richmond, VA. I love Whole Foods. Scratch that, I love the products Whole Foods sells, no matter what other people might have to say about them. Maybe the simplest way to phrase it is, I love whole foods. Whole Foods as an experience, that’s a whole other matter.

But here’s what sucks for Whole Foods: it has nothing to do with their employees. Across the board, across the country, they have been helpful, knowledgeable, and cordial. I’ve received phenomenal service in every department: from the beer fridge to the butcher counter to the bulk aisle. I now know everything there is to know about lentils, for instance, thanks to a guy stocking roma tomatoes in the produce section of the downtown Milwaukee store, who took the time to explain why he used red lentils for his curried lentil dish a couple nights before.

But there was one problem: the other customers. These customers are “across the board, across the country, useless, ignorant, and miserable”. Do you pity this poor author who is forced to brave ”a sneering, disdainful horde of hipster Zombies and entitled 1%ers” every time he wants to purchase his favourite lentils? I certainly do. Imagine having to cope with a supermarket where people block the aisles:

They stand in the middle of the aisles, blocking passage of any other cart, staring intently at the selection asking themselves that critical question: which one of these olive oils makes me seem coolest and most socially conscious, while also making the raw vegetable salad I’m preparing for the monthly condo board meeting seem most rustic and artisanal?

If you are a normal human being, when you come upon a person like this in the aisle you clear your throat or say excuse me, hoping against hope that they catch your drift. They don’t. In fact, they are disgusted by your very existence. The idea that you would violate their personal shopping space—which seems to be the entire store—or deign to request anything of them is so far beyond the pale that most times all they can muster is an “Ugh!”

Over the years I have tried everything to remain civil to these people, but nothing has worked, so I’ve stopped trying. Instead, I walk over to their cart and physically move it to the side for them. Usually, the shock of such an egregious transgression is so great that the “Ugh!” doesn’t happen until I’m around the corner out of sight. Usually, all I get is an incredulous bug-eyed stare. Sometimes I get both though, and when that happens, I look them square in the eye and say “Move. Your. Cart.” I used the same firm tone as Jason Bourne, with the hushed urgency of Jack Bauer and the uncomfortable proximity of Judge Reinhold. From their reaction you’d think I just committed an armed robbery or a sexual assault. When words fail them, as they often do with passive aggressive Whole Foods zombies, the anger turns inward and they start to vibrate with righteous indignation. Eventually, that pent up energy has to go somewhere, and like solar flares it bursts forth into the universe as paroxysms of rage.

Outside the four walls of a Whole Foods, you might recognize these people as Gawker commenters or Twitter shamers. Inside, they are the breathless, self-important shoppers who just can’t believe!! that it’s taking this long to check out. They are busy, they have somewhere to be. Don’t these people in the other six open checkout lanes that are each 3 shoppers deep understand that, WTF??!?

Or you might recognise these people as Medium bloggers. Hmm. The anecdote which occupies the rest of the article is very funny and definitely worth reading. But what interested me was the apparently complete failure of self-awareness exhibited by this otherwise perceptive writer. He is an angry Whole Foods devotee who regards everyone in the store as beneath contempt, accosts people threateningly in the isles and then goes home to let the internet know what rude assholes he has had to negotiate while shopping for his much needed organic food.

What interests me is the incivility with which he acts while nonetheless understanding himself as fighting to preserve civility. Squaring up to someone, aiming for “uncomfortable proximity” in order to “look them square in the eye and say ‘Move. Your. Cart.” isn’t civil behaviour. It just isn’t. So his response to the problem of incivility within Whole Foods actually contributes to it, seemingly without the author having stopped to ponder whether one of the people he threatens in the aisles might go home and blog about how rude Whole Foods customers are.

What’s really going on here? It’s not that there aren’t any endorsed and enforced norms about bodily comportment within public space. Clearly, there are many potential acts which would be roundly condemned and which would provoke an intervention by security (though it’s worth considering the relationship between interpersonal norms and the institutional structure in such instances). But this assembly of norms applicable to the social space is much fuzzier when we move away from absolute prohibition. If someone acts to enforce a norm (e.g. asks you to stop talking on your phone in the quiet zone of a train) and you endorse that norm (e.g. you felt you shouldn’t answer your phone but didn’t want to get up and leave the carriage) then their action has a normative force which it otherwise wouldn’t. This is what makes the difference between someone hanging up their phone at this point and blithely continuing to talk or even telling the complaining party to go fuck themselves.

When someone acts to enforce a norm which they endorse but others don’t, it is experienced as an arbitrary intervention or assertion of power. This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily opposed, given an overriding concern to sustain the peacefulness of the interaction, only that the phenomenology of the interaction is different. I’ve been shushed in a restaurant: at which point we did restrain the volume but, at least in my case, only to avoid a conflict rather than because I felt we’d violated a norm about proper comportment within the social space.

What interests me about the Whole Foods example is how the author would be perceived by one of the “sneering, disdainful horde of hipster Zombies and entitled 1%ers” he shoves past in the isle. It’s apparent to him that he’s acting to enforce a norm but presumably the norm is neither endorsed or even perhaps recognised by the offending party. Therefore, he’ll just seem very rude. What I’m pretentiously calling the paradox of civility is the necessity that norms of civility be both endorsed and enforced within a social space in order for action which enforces civility to avoid contributing to incivility. If the norms being acted upon aren’t widely endorsed then acting upon them will contribute to incivility no matter how justified the enforcing party believes themselves to be. People who complain about incivility and then act in this way are actually contributing to the very problem which so troubles them.  

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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2 replies »

  1. Hi Mark

    Your story reminded me another one in which I was involved myself some days ago. I live in the center of Barcelona, in a very nice street but full of tourists. I wrote a post about it in this blog, in the visual sociology section (I shoot, therefore I exist).

    The thing is, every day, when I go home, I find 10 or 15 tourists taking photos to the building in front (Palau de la Musica, quite a touristic atraction) and blocking (lilterally) the entrance to my street (which is really, really narrow).

    Some days ago I met this group blocking the entrance, as usual, and I ask them to let me in. There was a man in the group which got very rude at me… for disturbing them. I am normally a quiet person, and don’t use to argue with people in the middle of the street, but this was too much for me and told him that I was fed up of not being able to access normally to my home (I was quite rude here, I have to admit it), to which he answered that I should move somewhere else!!!!

    Well, in summary, the whole story was quite incivil. I was mad at this man not because he was in the middle of my way but because many people, over 15 years I’ve been living here, is in the middle of my way every day. And he was angry at me because whatever had happened, that had nothing to do with me (he had probably argued with his girlfriend, or had been cheated by the taxidriver, or his boss had been anoying him on the telephone on his leisure time.. whatever) and he took it with me.

    The result was incivility in both sides (I would say, more incivility in his side, but this might be a subjective view, of course). My conclusion from all this story: though I am usually a very quiet, respectful and educated person, far away from that man in the whole foods shop you speak about, sometimes, any of us can become incivilised at any moment, for a handful of reasons which have nothing or little to do with what is really happening. Don’t you think so?

    • I do! And I really can relate to that… This line of argument emerged from me analysing my own irritations as much as anything else – I guess I’m saying it’s a tendency at the level of social interaction which arises from much larger scale macro-social processes which are increasing the degree of normative heterogeneity in the social world.

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