It may not be borne out by research and data, but in recent years Americans have become more civil to each other. For instance, in New York City, once the benchmark for rudeness, it's now common to hear "pardon me" and "sorry" issuing from the mouths of New Yorkers shouldering past each other on the streets or in the subways.
When asked, those living and working in New York even stop to give directions. In fact, it's not hard to imagine a tourist, when asked about New York's infamous reputation, reply: "New Yorkers rude? That's one of those urban myths, right?"
New York's civility is partly due to one-time mayor Rudolph Giuliani's heavy-handed war on crime as well as his attention, however petty, to "quality-of-life" issues. But it's also a result of national enforcement of civil rights codes in the workplace and schools. Educators and those in the private sector have learned to tread lightly around the sensibilities of students, co-workers and those they supervise. Also, once the US economy abandoned production in favor of service, companies sought to out-do each other in courtesy.
Sure, the political correctness and superciliousness grate. But there's an even more disquieting downside to the new civility.
The rise of the labor movement set the foundation for many of us to move up a class. We subsequently floated another class higher on the stock and housing bubbles. In the process, we turned our backs on unions and, instead, began to identify with the rich, who tend to be more discreet about airing their views in public. Also, though fifty years have passed, traces of the damper McCarthyism put on public expression may still linger.
The net effect is that, except with those close to them, Americans are less willing than ever to discuss controversial issues. It's as if the old saw that warns us about bringing up politics and religion in mixed company were ratified as the twenty-eighth amendment to the Constitution.
For instance, in New York, not only once the rudest, but the most blunt of American cities, it's almost impossible to hear, among those commuting, working or walking the streets, any reference to Iraq.
Even though most Americans now find themselves in agreement that the war must end, old habits die hard and we still steer clear of the subject. Besides, despite sharing the same general view, we don't want to be a buzzkill and empty the room. In part, that's because we're paralyzed – either with indecision about whether or not to withdraw our troops immediately or by our inability to convince the administration to reverse course.
One can make the argument that our reluctance to speak is only a reflection of the failure of TV and network news to focus on Iraq. But the very paucity of coverage makes that argument tough to swallow -- the smaller the dose of Iraq footage, in fact, the more jarring its contrast with our lives.
To put a kind face on it, refusing to talk about not only Iraq, but the economy, our relations with Iran and the depletion of our oil reserves can be seen as a statement that the world the Bush administration and corporations have made for us is not our world. But continuing to dodge the American and Iraqi deaths that dog our nation's days does irreparable harm to our psyches.
Small talk is the grease that lubricates the gears of social, business and community relationships. Also, more than ever, it serves as white noise that screens out the outside world and lulls us to sleep.
The only positive that can be chalked up to avoiding controversial subjects in favor of small talk is that it's not all-out denial, but only avoidance. Still, just as much as denial, avoidance subverts the civility which, standing in stark opposition to the savagery of its government, has become a hallmark of American life. In fact, when that civility is used to fend off news of our government's misdeeds, it's no better than the barbarous behavior of our government.