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Six months into the pandemic, Christine Whelan sensed something was different.

“I was noticing this odd thing, that more and more cars had taken their mufflers off, and there were more and more people gunning their engines really loudly, making a bunch of racket on the road,” said Whelan, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor and expert in human behavior and cultural trends.

“I couldn’t understand why I was only now hearing this, and I had this sense in the back of my mind that this had something to do with the pandemic, and with a sense of anger at the political world around us and a sense of disenfranchisement.”

You’ve probably noticed it too. More people are not only driving noisily, but aggressively and inconsiderately. They snap at retail and service employees in person and on the phone, and have generally ratcheted up their incivility.

A terrific New York Times story was recently headlined: “A nation on hold wants to speak with a manager.” A woman from Madison was quoted in the story saying there are many nice people out there, “but when people are mean, they’ve become a heck of a lot meaner.” She was one of many citing inconsiderate and aggressive behavior.

To delve deeper, I spoke with Whelan, who speaks and writes about behavioral trends in addition to teaching in UW’s School of Human Ecology. She has taught a course around “consuming happiness” and is currently co-teaching one called “from depression to thriving” focusing on what she calls the “human ecology of resilience.”

Back to her account of noisy cars.

“That was about a year and a half ago, and as things have gone on, I’ve begun to realize that this is following a fairly classic pattern that I saw back in my doctoral research.”

In that research, Whelan said she established a correlation between booming sales of self-help books when surveys also showed people’s waning trust in government, religious institutions and even their neighbors. The purchases reflected “how people turn inward when they feel the world around them is unsafe and falling apart,” she added.

“I’ve been thinking about that in light of the bad behavior people have been exhibiting in the last several years, and what it seems to me to be saying is that people don’t feel safe.

“People don’t feel heard, they increasingly don’t trust that institutions are working for them, and so they’re turning inward. They are angry, and that anger is coming out as a more aggressive, entitled kind of response saying, you know, ‘I’m not getting what I deserve.’ ”

Christine Whelan

University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Christine Whelan says for a variety of reasons people in recent years "don’t feel heard, they increasingly don’t trust that institutions are working for them, and so they’re turning inward. They are angry, and that anger is coming out as a more aggressive, entitled kind of response."

Whelan explained what she sees as a fundamental change. “I think historically we had more of a sense of our social roles and the importance of meeting our social roles,” she said.

“But we’ve moved towards a very individualistic kind of cultural narrative. And institutions themselves are not benefiting us in the ways that we think they should. So people are getting angry, and that anger is coming out as basically, like toddler meltdown kind of behavior,” Whelan said.

Between pandemic fatigue and today’s savage political and cultural divisions, maybe all this bad behavior in unsurprising. I recalled for Whelan how the factory workers I labored with decades ago during college summers, men who endured the Depression and World War II, displayed little or none of the simmering anger that seems epidemic today.

“I think I can tell you why,” Whelan responded. “Those guys saw themselves as doing honest, good work that was valued in society, and they saw a future for themselves. The challenge now is that white rural folks have been on a downward trajectory.

“People tend to be much happier when they are on the lower end of the power structure but moving up, compared to when they are higher up and feel like they’re moving down.”

She added, “Who do you think is taking their mufflers off their cars? It’s white young men who feel disenfranchised by society.”

Whelan said the crisis from this loss of trust is exacerbated by what she called today’s “role models.”

“I’m going to get all political, but we’ve had leaders, like Donald Trump, who show us that being a jerk who yells a lot and doesn’t follow the rules can actually get you the presidency, it can be successful. So we see more people willing to get on the phone and yell at the customer service representative until they get what they want.”

So what to do now? I told Whelan that my wife’s strategy is to be over-the-top nice to everyone she encounters, especially those she suspects might be enduring angry interactions.

She’s right, Whelan replied.

“I would begin all interactions, as much as you can, from a place of empathy. And know actually that kindness, that empathy, may very well be the most effective strategy” to get what you want, which all may lead to a more civil society.

“That’s part one. Part two is to understand that the world has changed” and to manage our expectations. Another small thing people can do, she said, is “buy local, and engage local, and form relationships with people at the local levels.” It is not only the right thing to do, but you will get better results.

“I really don’t want us, as a society, to give up the power of personal interactions,” Whelan said.

Before leaving you on that kumbaya note, though, Whelan did share her disdain for the real bad actors.

“I was the etiquette chair of my sorority in college, and I think there is no excuse for those pitching fits on airplanes. They should be ashamed of themselves, and they need to grow up.

“On a structural and social level, I can explain how we got here, but still, I think we all need to have some individual self-respect and respect of others, and remember our manners, for heaven’s sake.”

I’m with her.

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