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Welcome to Toronto the Rude

We swear at each other from cars, bark at each other on the TTC and yell into our cellphones. How a supposedly livable city suddenly turned boorish

Torontonians cursing each other in a traffic jam, illustration

(Illustration by Kagan McLeod)

I got into a cat fight the other day at the Bolshoi ballet, one of those live satellite transmissions at my local Cineplex, where people arrive an hour early to get a good seat. The orchestra in Moscow hadn’t yet begun warming up when one balletomane barked at me for sitting in her territory, a 10-seat swath ambiguously marked with scattered scarves and hats. “You can’t sit there,” she said, with surprising nastiness. When I chose a seat farther down the row, she snapped, “That’s taken, too.” Steaming, I moved to a third spot and plunked my bag down on the seat beside me, not to save it for anyone, but to ensure zero human contact after being bullied by Lady Ten-Seat.

Rudeness is contagious. When another woman arrived a minute later and needed two seats, I set my jaw. “You’re not going to move your bag?” she asked, incredulous. “Nope,” I replied. We exchanged sharp words. “I’m tired of being pushed around by your friend,” I finally hissed, nodding at Lady Ten-Seat. It turned out not only did they not know one another, but my newfound adversary had just received the same rude treatment. “Now I’m totally edgy, too,” she confessed, suddenly extending her hand. “I’m Jane. Let’s be friends.” Mortified, I shook her hand, apologized and moved my coat. Then we all settled in to watch Giselle.

I wish such hostile encounters were rare, but it’s hard to navigate the city these days without experiencing friction. At least that’s my observation. Perhaps I’m just a magnet for trouble. Perhaps you, on the other hand, float through winter with people politely stepping into snowbanks to let you pass; perhaps you’ve never been held captive to a cellphone user’s inane conversation on a streetcar. But I say civility is on the decline, and the evidence is everywhere.

In the ongoing reality show that is Rob Ford’s city hall, Don Cherry set the uncivil tone with his Coach’s Corner–like rant during the mayor’s swearing-in ceremony. When anti-poverty protesters invaded a budget committee meeting in February—an intentionally rude gesture in itself—first brother Doug Ford grumbled, “Get a job!”

Meanwhile, new technology has given us all inventive ways to be bad-mannered. People check Twitter feeds while dining with friends. And thanks to cellphones, no one’s ever technically late because you can now text-message the poor sap waiting for you: “Hey, I’m five minutes away!”

This new standard of punctuality has infected other spheres. More and more people seem to arrive late for the theatre and concerts. Fortunately, the Toronto Symphony typically schedules a short introductory piece, so applause covers the sound of latecomers climbing over the legs and laps of others. At the end of the performance, some don’t even bother with a perfunctory acknowledgement of the artists, rushing for the exits before the orchestra has taken its first bow. (What is it with these patrons of the arts?)

In Canada’s biggest, most congested city, the rudeness epidemic is most obvious on our roads. Recently, while I was driving, a man in a car behind me honked his horn, and a nanosecond later the driver in front of me gave me the finger. Everyone is stressed out simply going to and from work; our average commuting time of 80 minutes a day—the equivalent of more than 40 work days a year—is among the worst in the world. No wonder drivers cut each other off or nearly mow down pedestrians. And no wonder pedestrians retaliate by crossing intersections at an aggravatingly slow, I’m-entitled-to-walk-like-I’m-93-years-old pace when a car is trying to make a turn. It makes you want to run them over.