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August 16, 2006

Does Western consumer culture make people rude? Jane Kelly compares the young Poles she used to teach in the early 1980s with the young Poles she now meets on the streets of London

Posted by Jane Kelly

When Jane Kelly was teaching in Poland in the early 1980s, the young people she taught were extremely polite, amiable and respectful. This cannot be said for the young Poles she now meets in London. Jane Kelly asks, is this the fault of our consumer culture? Have we created a generation of young Poles in our own image?

The government is worried, at last, that mass immigration from Eastern Europe is putting a strain on the nation's infrastructure. It puts a strain on everyone, and now it seems it's not that good for the immigrants either.

Last week the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported that many Polish children are being dumped by their parents who leave for a job in the UK. Last year 3,000 children under four were abandoned - something unheard of ten years ago for non-handicapped children. According to Gazeta Wyborcza the situation is becoming an "epidemic". Something very strange indeed is happening to the Poles.

I taught English at a Polish university in the early 1980s. My students were in the main amiable, respectful, rather quiet and hard working. A few expressed curiosity about the West, asking me odd things, for instance, if there were really hundreds of millionaires? And were public houses all brothels? But mainly they were so hard pressed by the privations of Communism that they didn't think much beyond helping their mothers by joining the next queue for bread or sausage.

The young Poles I now see in London are entirely different. Talking loudly into mobiles, on my daily bus, they shove to get on and push to get off. The words "excuse me" apparently no longer exists.

There is a popular myth that the new immigrants from the east don't have words for "please", "thank you" or "excuse me" in their own languages. But I know this is not true. When I lived in Poland I used to go round saying "excuse me" a lot as I loved the sound of it, all those gushing P's and rolling R's. And courtesy was a very important thing, they were extremely polite people.

Armed with this knowledge, I have picked young Poles up on their rudeness in London. In a local shop I saw a golden haired youth pointing to a row of pizza and grunting at the shop assistant. "Why don't you ask her properly?", I asked. He smiled at me, giving me a half bow in acknowledgement.

On another occasion I was parked in a narrow street at night when a white van came towards me. He couldn't pass so he sounded his horn, then switched his lights on full beam to dazzle me. I didn't budge. He got out and swaggered over, berating me in a Polish accent. "Why did you do that to me with your lights?", I asked. He looked ashamed, apologised and the matter was resolved.

This frenzy of mass immigration to the rich west is distorting people's lives. A friend in Poland recently e-mailed me about two close friends whose husbands have left - one for Dublin, one for Manchester - leaving wives and families behind. She thinks they won't return. Old obligations are being abandoned and families destroyed.

Just a few years ago the Polish family was sacrosanct, but a recent survey conducted by the foundation Niczyje Dzieci (Nobody's Children) in Warsaw, revealed:

levels of child abuse and sexual abuse of children comparable to those of Western Europe.
And now it seems husbands and fathers are taking flight, abandoning their children in the belief that they are joining a new, better, culture - one based on individual selfishness.

The rude, aggressive young immigrants were sired by parents who loved Margaret Thatcher, mainly because she stood up to their enemy, but 20 years on her massage is having an astonishingly pernicious effect. The students who asked me about millionaires were trying to get a glimpse of a world beyond their imagination. There were no known millionaires in Eastern Europe at the time, the communist leaders had money which they converted into hard currency, but no one envied them as they were considered morally bankrupt. Ordinary, decent Poles didn't have much money, but they had other things such as family, loyalty and friendship which they knew was worth more. At the same time they longed for a new way of living after communism, when all ills would be solved - sadly when the new society arrived it turned out to be no society at all - just like ours.

Quite soon after the fall of the old regime in Poland, I noticed that on trains fashionable younger people had stopped talking to strangers. In the old days you could make a new friend after even a short journey, but suddenly smart people were silent, "cool", just like in the West.

Now they have full access to the fruits of our culture; the Institute of Psychiatry recently conducted a study of 10,000 schoolchildren in the Warsaw area. It showed that 15% of all pupils aged 15 to 16, and 30% of all 18-year-olds, have already tried drugs - mainly marijuana, but also amphetamines and ecstasy.

If I was teaching students now they would be unrecognisable as the ones I used to know, with their baseball caps, jeans and mobile phones. The youth of Poland has jumped firmly into the consumer age, and full of enthusiasm for raw Capitalism, they've jumped over here.

They are having their Thatcher moment, doing just what they think we do. Pushing and shoving and cutting out all old fashioned courtesy, striving to become the new yuppies of Europe. I can remember the mid 1980s when that kind of behaviour was seriously fashionable, rudeness the mark of ambition - so who can really blame them? We are being played back a shabby but true echo of ourselves.

Jane Kelly worked as a full time staff feature writer for the Daily Mail for 15 years, but she now lives as a freelance journalist and painter in west London.

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Except little of this has anything to do with Thatcher or capitalism, and everything to do with the 60's. Most of the West has been capitalist for centuries, indeed far more capitalist than it is now, and most people, even young people, did not behave like this. Nor, in fact, do most Western businessmen act like this now.

On the contrary. The behaviour you're describing is straight out of the 60's "cool" handbook. It comes straight from the rock world -- which, despite all those "universal brotherhood" lyrics is an extremely cliquey, hierachical world where friendship and decent treatment can only ever be offered to those who pass a series of subtle tests, or who pre-qualify on the basis of their importance. It comes from the "Me" generation attitudes of the 1970's which have conquered the West. None of this had much to do with Thatcher or capitalism.

Posted by: Scott Campbell at Blithering Bunny at August 16, 2006 10:16 AM

I have noticed a similar change in the Baltic States. I returned there last month, having worked there in the early 1990's. Definitely less friendly now - they've lost a lot of their charm.

Posted by: Yaffle at August 16, 2006 11:27 AM

Jane Kelly's article is seriously flawed! Mrs Thatcher sought to rescue Britain from the vice-like grip of the Unions to liberate individual enterprise and creativity from the lock-step mentalily that had previously prevailed. Rudeness, a lack of discipline, a lack of self-restriant, loose morality, denigration of the Christian and family values, and moral equivalence are all ideas that came out of the 1960s and these ideas, typically, are a long time in gestation. They came to fruition in the middle Thatacher years but it is inconceivable that she could have been responsible for such a paradigm shift in a people's attitudes and behaviour in such a short space of time.

The misquote attributed to Mrs Thatcher about there being no such thing as society was taken out of context and came define the era in the minds of many of her detractors and those easily manipulated and mislead.

The full quote from Mrs Thatcher was as follows:

I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.
It ought to be self explanatory. Where an individual looks first to himself/herself for solutions to his/her problems, those problems are more easily solved than reliance on someone/something else.

The error a lot of new immigrants make (and are encouraged by the envy brigade and detractors of the West to make) is to see what they consider to be a lot of easy wealth and freedoms, seemingly without responsibilities, without realising the hard work and effort that had gone into accumulating the wealth and the blood and sweat that had been shed to win those freedoms.

One would suppose that a person who migrates from a poor and repressive nation to a wealthier and freer one would be sober and wear the look of gratitude. Alas, that is not human nature.

Posted by: Olaju at August 16, 2006 04:23 PM

I echo Jane Kelly's sentiments exactly, because I am disgusted by the rudeness and incivility exhibited by those Eastern Europeans with whom my work puts me into contact.

Posted by: Martin Kelly at August 17, 2006 07:48 AM
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