Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

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HoustonDavid
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Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by HoustonDavid » Wed Jan 05, 2011 10:59 am

Rudeness Is a Neurotoxin

by Dr. Douglas Fields

Americans are rude. I say this not to preach, which is neither my right nor my intention, but as a scientist, a developmental neuroscientist. My concern about American rudeness relates to my scientific research and knowledge about the development of the human brain. My conclusion comes from a recent trip to Japan, and from a reminder of times past, the death of actress Barbara Billingsley, who died Oct. 16, 2010.

Billingsley portrayed June Cleaver, the sympathetic and iconic, nurturing mother on the popular 1950s sitcom "Leave It to Beaver." Remember her signature line? "Ward, I'm worried about the Beaver." She confided her concern earnestly to her husband whenever their young son seemed the slightest bit distressed. The latest scientific research backs up with detailed molecular and cellular mechanisms what June Cleaver (and we) always knew intuitively, that through adolescence, the human brain is molded by the social environment in which a child is reared. A disrespectful, stressful social environment is a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche, and the scars are permanent.

One can debate how accurately television entertainment reflects reality, but there is no doubt that it represents the ideals of the time. Commercial art and entertainment always reflect and reinforce a society's values, as the public buy it (literally) because they value it. There is no doubt that American society has changed dramatically with respect to manners and social discourse in a generation. The "Leave It to Beaver" model of American polite society in the 1950s and early 1960s is gone. Those black-and-white sitcoms have been supplanted today by garish reality television programs that showcase domestic and social interactions driven by narcissism, factionalism, competition and selfishness.

The contrast between the brash, comparatively disrespectful behavior of Americans today and the courtesy, formal manners, civil discourse, polite behavior and respect for others regardless of social status that is evident in Japanese society is striking. The contrast hits an American like a splash of cold water upon disembarking the airplane in Japan, because it clashes so starkly with our behavior. For an American, Japanese manners and courtesy must be experienced.

American children today are raised in an environment that is far more hostile than the environment that nurtured today's adults. Children today are exposed to behaviors, profane language, hostilities and stress from which we adults, raised a generation ago, were carefully shielded. When I was a boy, there were no metal detectors at the entrance to my school. The idea was inconceivable, and there was indeed no need for them. Not so today. I wonder: how does this different environment affect brain development?

First it is helpful to consider, from a biological perspective, what "rudeness" is, so that we can consider what is lost when formal polite behaviors are cast away. People (and animals) living together in large numbers must develop strict formalized behaviors governing interactions between all individuals in the group, or there will be strife and chaos. In the natural world, as in the civilized world, it is stressful for individuals (people or animals) to interact with strangers, and also with other members of a working group and family members. As the size of the group increases, so do the number of interactions between individuals, thus raising the level of stress if not controlled by formal, stereotyped behavior, which in human society is called "manners." The formal "Yes, Sir, Yes, Ma'am," is not a showy embellishment in the military; strict respect and formal polite discourse are the hub of the wheel in any effective and cohesive social structure. True, many chafe under a system of behavior that is overly rigid, as do many young Japanese, but my point is that these polite and formalized behaviors reduce stress in a stressful situation that arises from being an individual in a complex society. Stress is a neurotoxin, especially during development of a child's brain.

Studies have shown that children exposed to serious psychological trauma during childhood are at risk of suffering increased psychiatric disorders, including depression, anger, hostility, drug abuse, suicidal ideation, loneliness and even psychosis as adults. Using modern brain imaging, the physical damage to these children's brain development can be seen as clearly as a bone fracture on an X-ray. Early-childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse and witnessing domestic violence undermine the normal wiring of brain circuits, especially those circuits connecting the left and right sides of the brain through a massive bundle of connections called the corpus callosum. Impairment in integrating information between right and left hemispheres is associated with increased risk of craving, drug abuse and dependence, and a weakened ability to make moral judgments. (See my post "Of Two Minds on Morality" for new research on the corpus callosum and the ability to make moral judgments.)

A series of studies by a group of psychiatrists and brain imaging scientists lead by Martin Teicher, of Harvard Medical School, shows that even hostile words in the form of verbal abuse can cause these brain changes and enduring psychiatric risks for young adults. In a study published in 2006, the researchers showed that parental verbal abuse was more strongly associated with these detrimental effects on brain development than was parental physical abuse. In a new study published in the July issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, they report that exposure to verbal abuse from peers is associated with elevated psychiatric symptoms and corpus callosum abnormalities. The main causes are stress hormones, changes in inhibitory neurotransmitters, and environmental experience affecting the formation of myelin electrical insulation on nerve fibers. The most sensitive period for verbal abuse from peers in impairing brain development was exposure during the middle school years. Why? Because this is the period of life when these connections are developing in the human brain, and wiring of the human brain is greatly influenced by environmental experience.

Unlike the brains of most animals, which are cast at birth, the human brain develops largely after we are born. The brain of a human infant is so feeble that human babies are helpless. Human infants cannot walk, visual perception is rudimentary, and cognitive abilities, likes and dislikes, talents and skills, and the ability to communicate by speech or through reading and writing do not develop fully until the completion of adolescence. Our brains are the product of the environment in which we are nurtured through the first two decades of life. Whether you are Mormon or Muslim or speak Spanish or French depends primarily on where you were born and raised. Our experience during childhood and adolescence determines the wiring of our brain so powerfully that even processing of sensory information is determined by our childhood environment. Whether or not we can hear eight notes in a musical scale or 12, or whether we find symmetry in art beautiful or boring, or whether we can hear the difference in sound of the English letter "R" vs. "L", depends entirely upon whether our brains wired up during childhood in Western culture or Asian culture. The neural circuitry underlying those sensory perceptions is directed by what we experienced in early life, and these circuits cannot be rewired easily in the adult brain.

One can view the effects of environment on brain development with fatalism or with optimism. It is, however, the reason for human success on this planet. The fact that our brains develop after we are born rather than in the womb allows humans to adapt to changing environments. Biologically speaking, this increases the likelihood of success in reproducing in the environment we find ourselves rather than in the cave-man past coded through natural selection in our genes.

There were many other sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s that portrayed politeness and manners as paramount in social and family interactions: "Ozzie and Harriet," "Father Knows Best," "The Donna Reed Show." These are largely forgotten, but "Leave it to Beaver" thrived. It did so not as a commercial success for the ABC television network during its run from 1957 to 1963, but because of its enormous popularity in syndication, where it ran for decades in the late afternoon, watched with devotion by an audience of school children.

Dr. Fields is the Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
"May You be born in interesting (maybe confusing?) times" - Chinese Proverb (or Curse)

John F
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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by John F » Thu Jan 06, 2011 12:09 am

People have been complaining about a decline in good manners for a very long time. What else is new?

As for the thread title, Americans are not biologically distinct from all others as regards "rudeness" in particular. Where's the gene? And Dr. Fields uses the scientific term "neurotoxin" repeatedly in what seems a metaphorical way and without explaining what a neurotoxin is and how it can be a "social environment." Despite his credentials, this has an air of pseudoscience about it.
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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by living_stradivarius » Thu Jan 06, 2011 12:15 am

Why a decline in "good manners?"

What the article doesn't address is an environment that invites curiosity and inquiry and parents who are incapable of answering "WHY?" Back in Beaver's days, kids hardly asked why - why shave, why wear a tie, why go to school. They just accepted things as they were. With the 60s, civil rights, and post-modernism, those who grew up asking "WHY" never sought to answer that very question themselves for their own children. That's what we need to equip parents with -- answers to children's questions, instead of letting them capitulate to behaviors they don't know how to respond to.
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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by John F » Thu Jan 06, 2011 3:07 am

living_stradivarius wrote:Why a decline in "good manners?"
That's what Fields's article is about.
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Agnes Selby
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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by Agnes Selby » Thu Jan 06, 2011 3:13 am

Another publish or perish article?

Having lived in the USA for 12 years, I can safely say I had not
met with excessive rudeness. In fact, I had not met with any rudeness.

Japanese culture is different. Anyone bowing constantly in the USA would be
regarded as an oddity. I wonder how much time did Dr. Fields spent in Japan
outside of his learned circle, was it years or just a visit and a stay at
a posh hotel?

Perhaps manners among the young have changed. But then, bad manners of children
had been noted even in Greek times by learned philosophers who despaired
about the future of an ill-mannered generation. It so happens that children
grow up and become old and in turn they look back at their childhood
with rose coloured glasses.
Last edited by Agnes Selby on Thu Jan 06, 2011 3:16 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by living_stradivarius » Thu Jan 06, 2011 3:14 am

John F wrote:
living_stradivarius wrote:Why a decline in "good manners?"
That's what Fields's article is about.
err, it wasn't a real inquiry - rather a rhetorical question that I answer with my post with an alternate cause/framework


Another problem with Field's article is it doesn't discuss how pop culture today = psychological trauma or verbal abuse cited in the studies. What's more damaging, profanity in rap music or the anal-retentiveness of Catholic school upbringing? You need a balance in between.
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Wallingford
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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by Wallingford » Thu Jan 06, 2011 1:15 pm

Well,regardless of whether the scientific aspects of Dr. Fields' theory manage to hold water, I've silently observed for many years now how the ***-hole instinct resides in us Americans. No one likes hearing the truth, but there you have it.
If I could tell my mom and dad
That the things we never had
Never mattered we were always ok
Getting ready for Christmas day
--Paul Simon

Cosima___J
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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by Cosima___J » Thu Jan 06, 2011 1:59 pm

Well I've not done an exhaustive scientific study, but I'm going to hazard a guess that the "**hole instinct" is alive and well in all countries, not just America.

Also, I've never been to Japan so I can only speak about that country from what I've read over a period of years. The excessive politeness is apparently drilled into the people of that culture from an early age, but does it really represent what's going on internally, i.e., in the brains/minds/attitudes of the citizens? I imagine that the Japanese are just like everybody else in that they feel a wide range of emotions including anger, hatefulness, distrust etc. I guess they just repress these emotions? Sounds like a stultifying idea. Or maybe behind closed doors, they blow off a heck of a lot of steam?

Agnes Selby
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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by Agnes Selby » Thu Jan 06, 2011 3:05 pm

Behind all that politeness are the suicide bombers
of World War II. The first of the kind we so despise today.
I wonder if they bowed politely just
before smashing themselves into ships at sea. Also, their
prisoner of war camps must have been a "delightful
retreat" where no doubt polite bowings proceeded the torture.

Why do Americans love to hate themselves? Why would Americans
feel inferior to the Japanese and to the Europeans?

Why don't you glory in your own exceptionality?

Agnes.

Cosima___J
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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by Cosima___J » Thu Jan 06, 2011 3:13 pm

Well Agnes, THIS American does NOT hate America!!! It seems to me that most of whatever Hate America First exists is to be found on the Left.

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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by karlhenning » Thu Jan 06, 2011 3:19 pm

Can the person who first brought forward this idea of Hating America please tell me: Did the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s "hate" America?

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Agnes Selby
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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by Agnes Selby » Thu Jan 06, 2011 4:06 pm

Cosima___J wrote:Well Agnes, THIS American does NOT hate America!!! It seems to me that most of whatever Hate America First exists is to be found on the Left.
Cosi, quite truthfully, I cannot understand what is happening in the USA
today. My family spent almost 12 years in Philadelphia from 1976 to 1988 and our chilren
also lived in New York. Both our children were educated in America. We all
have friends in America and very fond memories. I can't remember a single
incident of rudeness nor do I remember such political divisions.

My neighbour in the suburb of Haverford who I still correspond with was a Liberal.
My other neighbour who has visited us twice was a Republican. I never heard
them arguing about anything, particularly not about politics. Have things changed
so drastically or was I asleep during those 12 years.

Agnes.

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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by jack stowaway » Thu Jan 06, 2011 5:05 pm

As a frequent visitor to the United States for over 30-years I cannot recall a single instance of rudeness. To the contrary, I am often impressed by the level of public politeness and helpfulness I so frequently encounter in the US. And it may surprise some posters to learn that I feel safer walking the streets of major American cities than I do walking the streets of Melbourne, Australia. [In fact, the only thing that scares me about the US is the line-up for Customs and Immigration at LAX!]

As others have pointed out, there is often a real disconnect between the public and private faces of 'respect' cultures. Whereas in the US one feels that public attitudes and conduct reflect private feelings, in Japanese, Indian, Chinese and Middle-Eastern cultures one is constantly aware of a disjunct between highly-ritualised public conduct and personal feeling, particularly in the attitude shown towards women.

As Agnes points out, it is far easier to 'turn off' authentic feelings of empathy, compassion, fellow-feeling, etc in overly-formalised cultures than it is in the West --where the face is expected to mirror rather than mask inner values and attitudes. I have presonal experience, for example, of how a member of a highly-ritualised cultural group can behave with impeccable politeness and courtesty towards others while harbouring intense feelings of hostility and enmity towards the host culture.

Such disconnection between private thought and public behaviour comes far more easily to cultures saturated in tightly-regulated codes of permissable expression. I would take the liberal, personal and authentic manners of America anyday over the brittle falsness and culturally-prescribed 'courtesy' of 'respect' cultures.

I am not denying a certain decline in public manners in the West, but that decline should be measured against our own cultural norms and values, not those of alien cultural traditions.

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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by Agnes Selby » Thu Jan 06, 2011 5:14 pm

Well said, Jack. I couldn't agree more.

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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by jack stowaway » Thu Jan 06, 2011 5:17 pm

As an addendum to my post, above, I would offer that Dr Fields is confusing values and cultures with manners. Personal traits such as generosity, helpfulness, and empathy are universal, and the hallmark of manners. Politeness and public conduct toward others, on the other hand, is socially and culturally prescribed and has little to do with either the genuine feelings of the individual or of personal values.

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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by Wallingford » Thu Jan 06, 2011 11:49 pm

Really, biology's impact is forgettable in comparison to that of television. So in-your-face, so loud, so amoral.
If I could tell my mom and dad
That the things we never had
Never mattered we were always ok
Getting ready for Christmas day
--Paul Simon

HoustonDavid
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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by HoustonDavid » Fri Jan 07, 2011 11:40 am

Biological impact is permanent, it's built into your DNA, not nearly as avoidable as
"in-your-face, so loud, so amoral" television, film and recorded media. Dr. Field's
point - or one of them - is that human behavior is largely imprinted post-partem
rather than the pre-partem biological imprint of other species of animal. In essence,
you are agreeing with the good doctor: in humans, biological imprint is of lesser
importance, albeit that it is permanently ingrained in all humans.
"May You be born in interesting (maybe confusing?) times" - Chinese Proverb (or Curse)

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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by John F » Fri Jan 07, 2011 1:35 pm

jack stowaway wrote:As an addendum to my post, above, I would offer that Dr Fields is confusing values and cultures with manners. Personal traits such as generosity, helpfulness, and empathy are universal, and the hallmark of manners. Politeness and public conduct toward others, on the other hand, is socially and culturally prescribed and has little to do with either the genuine feelings of the individual or of personal values.
Apropos, the American South or at least its upper strata long had a reputation for the most conspicuous and polished good manners in the country, at the same time that its values and culture were based on slavery and then segregation.
John Francis

HoustonDavid
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Re: Americans Are Rude, Biologically Speaking

Post by HoustonDavid » Fri Jan 07, 2011 2:51 pm

Having lived in the deep South for nearly twenty years - most of the rest in the
Pacific Northwest or Canada - I will say that Southern hospitality and good manners
stand head-and-shoulders above what I have experienced elsewhere. Like the good
doctor, I spent time in Japan - in my case nearly two years - and found the formality
of the Japanese customs and manners impossible to emulate for a Westerner. The
Japanese would be far too courteous to mention our Western manners in a negative
context, but to there very heterogeneous society and way of looking at things, all
non-Japanese "gaigin" (foreigners) are barbaric.
"May You be born in interesting (maybe confusing?) times" - Chinese Proverb (or Curse)

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