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Face it, you’ve become meaner because of the pandemic

In many aspects of life, from driving, to flying, to public discourse, people have become ruder in how they treat one another.

A Utah National Guardsman gives a woman a COVID-19 test.
Utah National Guardsman Alex Hale gives Carmen Mendoza a COVID-19 test at the Utah State Fairpark in Salt Lake City on Aug. 9. The pandemic is being blamed for a rise in uncivil behavior, from reckless driving to rudeness in public settings and attacks on flight attendants.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

You’ve become ruder since COVID-19 invaded your world, haven’t you?

Well, maybe not you. I like to think of my readers as nice people. But I’ll bet you have encountered more rude people.

On one simple freeway trip into Utah County last weekend, I encountered several drivers who felt it necessary to tailgate me at high speeds (I was going slightly over the 70mph limit), then dart into another lane at the first opening and accelerate to what must have been 100 mph or more.

I’ve written about the phenomenon of reckless driving and the pandemic before, but it just keeps getting worse. At first, the experts I talked to thought people were speeding because a lot of commuters were staying home, traffic was light and the open road was beckoning. But when people left home again and the traffic started to build, the speeders seemed to only multiply.

Sgt. Cameron Roden of the Utah Highway Patrol gave me the latest figures. Through Tuesday of this week, the UHP had stopped 496 people for reckless driving. That compares to 855 for all of 2020, and 724 for all of 2018.

When it comes to driving 100 mph or more, 2,800 people have been cited so far this year, compared to 3,308 for all of 2018.

Sgt. Roden said the UHP has seen a 46% increase in fatal crashes so far this year compared to 2020. Some recent accidents have been particularly disturbing, including a bride killed on her wedding day by a car traveling the wrong way on a freeway.

Nothing significant has changed to cause this behavior. Speed limits are the same. The roads are basically the same. Manufacturers aren’t making cars that go any faster than before.

But then, airplanes are mostly the same, too, except for those mask rules. And yet an FAA chart of investigations launched against unruly passengers shows an alarming spike since 2020.

As of Aug. 8, the FAA has fielded complaints of 3,810 incidents involving unruly passengers and 2,786 incidents related to masks this year alone. It has launched 655 investigations and initiated 112 enforcement cases. Those are only the incidents reported to the FAA. Flight crew members may have decided not to report others.

But the rudeness goes far beyond cars and airplanes. It infests public meetings and political discourse, not to mention casual contact among strangers.

As the New York Times reported in July, the owners of Apt Cape Cod, a restaurant in Brewster, Massachusetts, felt it necessary to shut down for a day and treat their employees to kind behavior after customers yelled at them one time too many.

Other restaurateurs have complained of the same thing, noting customers seem to have little patience with establishments that are short-staffed and trying to recover from months of being closed.

“I would say that it is its own epidemic,” the co-owner of Apt Cape Cod said of the behavior.

Maybe you think rudeness is harmless, so long as no one is physically assaulted. You would be wrong.

Researchers are learning it can be as contagious as a disease, and it can have disastrous consequences. University of Florida management professor Amir Erez and doctoral student Trevor Foulk conducted research on neonatal intensive care unit teams in 2017. They found that those who were exposed to someone who berated and scolded them ended up performing worse at their jobs the rest of the day. That included misdiagnosing some cases.

A report on a University of Florida website quoted Erez as saying rudeness accounts for more than 40% of hospital errors that result in the death of a patient.

People seem to have so many things to be angry about today, whether it’s wearing masks or not wearing them, keeping schools open or refusing to close them, getting vaccinated or thinking it’s dangerous, or just feeling powerless against forces out of their control.

Answers to all of this don’t come easy.

The Harvard Gazette interviewed David H. Rosmarin, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard who also runs the McLean Hospital Spirituality and Mental Health program.

“There is data that spirituality can be protective when it comes to anger, and that could be because it helps us to be comfortable feeling vulnerable and expressing that vulnerability,” he said, adding, “Spirituality can help us to lean on others as opposed to having to show our prowess.”

That’s good advice. I would add that, if researchers are finding that rudeness is contagious, then kindness must be contagious, too. If enough of us exhibit kindness in public, maybe it would catch on.

It might not help much when you’re being tailgated or cut off on the freeway, but it could pay off over time.