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Last Updated: Friday, 26 May 2006, 11:40 GMT 12:40 UK
Confrontation culture
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine

You've seen it in the shops, on the streets and on public transport. With Big Brother providing the background music - are we becoming addicted to confrontation?

It's an everyday scene. I'm in a supermarket and without explanation or apparent provocation, there's suddenly shouting. A woman and a man, both adults, are bawling at each other.

The insults begin at the extreme end of the verbal spectrum and then get worse. It's hand-on-the-hip, finger-wagging abuse taken to the level of performance art.

This is the Jerry Springer Show live from the cooked-meat counter.

No-one has been physically hurt, no police have been called, there are no camera crews rushing to record the scene. But what does it say about the way we're living?

Big Brother

What causes these random and extreme breakdowns? Do we even have a voyeuristic enjoyment of these confrontations. Because when we get home and turn on the television, what are we going to watch? People shouting at each other. Loudly. Again and again.

Big Brother
Big Brother turns high-octane confrontation into entertainment

This year's Big Brother has already reached a fever pitch of yelling. The first contestant to depart, Shahbaz Chauhdry, has already had a series of full-volume slanging matches with the housemates.

But should we be surprised that extreme characters put into an extreme situation behave in an extreme way?

According to social psychologist Arthur Cassidy, the Big Brother show is built around deliberately-manufactured confrontations - with the "debasement" of individuals in these bust-ups being part of the package sold to viewers.

Dr Cassidy, who specialises in studying conflict, says he has previously declined to take part in the Big Brother project because of his ethical concerns about the show.

"The ends don't justify the means. What we're watching is very constructed, very construed. If you put vulnerable and marginalised people in such acute situations, they will perform in a way they think the producers want.''

And he believes that this does have a knock-on effect for the audience - normalising what is artificial and destructive behaviour.

"We learn from watching others. If people see that it's acceptable to scream, argue, become confrontational, then they think: why can't I? People can believe that this is the way forward."

Retail rage

There's no escaping the way that television has become much more loud and in your face. No one wants to sit quietly in the audience any more.

Vicky Pollard or Brief Encounter
Vicky Pollard or Brief Encounter: Stiff upper lip or stiff upper finger?

But since television was invented it's been blamed for every social ill - and every generation has been outraged by programmes that later come to be seen as nostalgic, harmless entertainment.

A spokesperson for Big Brother said the "dynamics and alliances which form change day to day and are fascinating to watch".

"As often happens with the show, themes develop that are picked up and create wider debate in the outside world. As with every series, Big Brother always encourages housemates to resolve their differences within the house."

So is there really any connection between an attention-seeking rant on the box and someone losing the plot in the supermarket?

Paul Clarke, spokesperson for shopworkers' union Usdaw, believes that the confrontational style of reality television does influence public behaviour - also citing the macho attitude of the BBC's Apprentice show.

"People blur what they see on television with the real world. They think that if they're mindlessly aggressive and go in with an 'I want, I get' approach, it's the way to get things done. Instead they're likely to end up being thrown out into the street."

Shopworkers are on the front line of where adults have temper tantrums - and he says that last year there were 20,000 physical assaults on shop staff. And the union's annual survey showed a 35% increase in verbal abuse at shopworkers.

"Some people have no self-discipline, no self-control. They behave like spoilt children. There are shopworkers who are told to F-off every single day. It's soul destroying." And he says that despite the assumptions about young people, middle-aged women are the shoppers most likely to be yelling abuse at staff.

He says that he had just been talking to a shopworker who had been attacked by a customer.

"She explained that she couldn't carry out an exchange on something brought back to the shop and the customer had grabbed the pin from the security tag and ripped the shop worker's arm open with it. It came out of nowhere.

"It's a weird thing. How do you explain why not being able to change a jumper can become such a big issue?"

Taste the deference

The man who is the government's adviser on improving discipline in schools, Sir Alan Steer, says any shifts in public behaviour have to be seen in the context of wider social changes.

Public culture: Reserve and understatement or confrontation?

"People are more challenging. We once lived in a more accepting society, where authority figures had more control. Look at the deference that used to be given to politicians and the Royal Family."

This shift to a more open, more democratic culture is seen as bringing benefits, he says. But the flip-side can be an unreasonable sense of entitlement.

And he says before we criticise young people's loud and exaggerated behaviour they need to take a look at adult behaviour and the programmes being pitched at the young.

"There is an influence from soap operas, where every episode ends in a crisis." And he says that reality television can be a showcase for "ghastly people behaving in a ghastly way".

"So if you model bad behaviour why be surprised if it affects impressionable young people?"

I'll scream and I'll scream

But are we really getting worse in our public behaviour? Ben Page, chairman of the Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, says there is certainly a common perception that we're losing our manners.

Sir Alan Steer
Sir Alan Steer: "Why be surprised if it affects young people?"

And he has a phrase to describe the shoppers having childish tantrums at the checkouts - these are "masters of the me-niverse", who expect the world to revolve around the axis of their own ego.

"People are less inhibited, they feel that they have a right to express themselves and they don't care what people think."

This has been fuelled by a "toxic" collision of factors, he says - 1960s liberalism, 1980s me-first culture and increases in affluence, stress, long working hours and alcohol consumption.

But the institute's research into public behaviour also revealed some double-think that could explain how people both condemn and secretly enjoy confrontations on the screen and the streets.

Three-quarters of people who themselves admitted to swearing in public were offended when others did the same. And two-thirds of those who make rude gestures when driving were appalled by the same behaviour in other people. So we're moaning about our own loutishness

And he highlights the extreme gap that has grown between different images of British life.

"Why do we have a reputation for both being reserved and for being drunk and aggressive?" he says.

And what does it mean? Since you began reading this article seven shopworkers have been slapped, punched or spat at by their customers.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

A couple of years ago I saw two women fighting over a bag of potatoes in a supermarket......on Christmas Eve. Peace and good will to all.
Clackers, Thatcham

Very interesting article. Having to run the gauntlet of the school run in the morning to get to work on public transport, this article only scratches the surface. ... I tried booking a holiday on a Greek island this year by booking flights and hotels separately. There are hotels that blatantly state on their web sites "NO ENGLISH!" ... I despair what this country will be.
Ian Paterson, London

I used to work as a manager in McDonald's. A bloke threw his quarter pounder burger at my face because it had a pickle in it and he thought he was being funny and macho in front of his wife and children!!
Nicky, Lancashire

I'm sending this on the sly while working in a Tesco call centre. I completely agree with the idea that middle-aged, middle-class women are the worst. I've had them screaming obscenities and crying over pennies. I would love them to be conscripted into a call centre for a day to see what its like to be treated like a sub-human, all for the minimum wage.
Razzlebarnstorm, Dundee

My fiancee worked in a well known and respected high street retail shop on the refunds till and at one stage a woman in her early thirties lay on the floor in front of the till refusing to move until they agreed to refund her on a skirt that had been ripped at the zipper by someone forcing themselves into something too small. Apparently when trying to demand something, dignity no longer has a place!!
Ana, South East London

Two days ago I was on the tube standing next to a woman who was inflicting her Finnish Death Metal on the rest of the carriage from her headphones. I asked her extremely politely if she could turn it down slightly and she responded, "NO! F off you C!".
Clare Gibb, London

Having just moved to the UK from the USA, I am amazed by the sheer aggression of the average person. I have encountered brief moments of verbal abuse through driving and shopping. This country has 'lost the plot'in manners.
Frances, Chipping Campden

Great explanation of a phenomenon; maybe the truth is we are rats squabbling in a crowded stressed little island.
Phil, London

I worked in retail management for a very large company for three years and left due to the amount of verbal abuse and threats of physical abuse towards me and my staff.
Belle, South East, UK

Tempers can flare over the most inconsequential things these days. I recently went snowboarding in the French Alps and watched in amazement as two female strangers argued agressively over who should be climbing into the next gondola lift.
Dan Lawson, Windsor

The other day I scratched my key down the side of the car of a single woman who had parked in the 'parent and child' area at the local supermarket, leaving me and my baby to park elsewhere. It was a thrill and she deserved it, but I realise now I could have handled the situation better...
Anon, Anon

A lot of agggression is fuelled by depression. I know this because I behaved in this way myself before I was properly diagnosed and supplied with a suitable treatment. Many, perhaps most, of these people will be suffering serious problems in their home and/or work lives which are leading to their antisocial behaviour.
Harvey, Swindon

Some people in Britain today have lost the plot completely. There are some who actually have no moral code - no sense of right or wrong - nothing whatsoever to inform or guide their actions. At one time the family unit, community, trade union or church provided this guidance. But these institutions have been in decline for some time. The 'English reserve', the 'stiff upper lip' - these are of a bygone age. Now it's all in ya face confrontation, or the opposite extreme - people bubbling away at the TV cameras "we'll never get over this"etc. The trouble is that too many of these people are informed solely by TV. They get all of their information about life from the box. (soaps, reality, big money quiz shows and more soaps) They have no other guide on how to live, how to govern their behaviour.
Jim, Inverness

It says it all in the article, it's middle aged people and that the teenagers are better behaved than they were in the 80s. How old do you think those teenagers are now? Yep, Thatcher's children are now self-centred adults who are overcome by their own self-importance.
Jason, London

Speaking as one of Thatcher's children, I would say that the problem lies in the culture of consumption and material acquisition. We are told that the only way to show you are a worthwhile and productive member of society is by the goods you accumulate. Anything that prevents you doing this is clearly trying to denigrate your value as a person, and should be opposed. And people do oppose it.
Will Gibson, London, England

I work in a school and it amazes me the swearing and language that is used by teens. Please don't tell me that tv is not to blame. I have 12 year olds telling me they stay up until midnight watching tv in their rooms. They watch all the soaps and Big Brother so a good dose of abnormal behaviour before settling down to bed. No wonder they don't mind screaming at teachers about their rights!
Jan, UK

I have to say that Dr Arthur Cassidy's hypothesis is nothing more than presumptuous generalisation that only stokes moral panic. Myself and my friends, we watch and enjoy Big Brother because we are consistently dumbfounded by the fights, feuds and tantrums. It is simply fascinating what the show does to these people, and if any kind of atmosphere of tension spills over into the audience, they are probably inclined towards aggressive behaviour to begin with. Some people are just not nice, and it has always been that way!
H Astley, Oxford

I too work in a supermarket at weekends and the sheer rudeness of some people is astonishing. I have never once had an issue with teenagers/young adults. It has all been middle aged and elderly people. They will literally come up to your face and start ranting about the smallest thing.
K, Surrey

This type of thing has definitely got worse in my lifetime and since collectively, as a society, we stand idly by and do nothing, the perpetrators continue. I really hate the sinking feeling of being behind one of these idiots as they prepare to verbally assault their next completely innocent victim, when all you want is a bus ticket, cash, shopping, drink. We all need to stand up to these boors each and every time we come across them.
John W Cush, London

Couldn't agree more with the man from MORI. My partner works in a railway station, and suffers verbal abuse several times each day, as do his work colleagues.
Phil, Witney

I agree with this article thoroughly. I work in a call centre and daily deal with people making massive fusses, being rude and sometimes swearing and screaming over the most trivial things. People think too much of their self importance!
Yvette, Cheshire

We have become a culture centred on 'knowing our rights'. Unfortunately we seem to have forgotten that these rights come with attendant responsibilities. We want everything now, and don't see why we should wait or take others into consideration.
Brķa, Glasgow

I was in KFC the other day and a very fat woman blatantly pushed in front of me in the queue. I bit my lip in typical British style. Then laughed as she ordered a huge meal and a diet coke.
Pete, Manchester

I worked in a shop for a few years recently, and found that the most rude and aggressive customers tended to be middle-aged, upper middle-class women. Never ever had trouble from a teenager. As the Usdaw spokesman said, it really can be soul destroying, they often treat you as sub-human and speak to you in a way I can never imagine myself speaking to someone else.
Blake, London

I worked for several years in supermarkets and all of the aggressive abuse I encountered came from middle-aged women behaving like spoilt little children, reducing young girls on the checkouts to tears. I'm fed up that people assume that this kind of thing is about youths causing problems, and glad this article is bucking the trend.
Martin Robbins, Aberystwyth

I am in the Army and have just returned from Canada (the land of tolerance) My wife and I were only in the UK for a matter of hours when we were involved in an incident that almost resulted in a fight, with a group of youths, at four in the morning, at a service station in the midlands. It has taken some persuasion to keep my wife (who is from Edinburgh)from going back to Canada! I despair of this country.
Norrie Robertson, Edinburgh

It's true programmes like Eastenders have contributed a lot to this behaviour, by apparently normalising it. When all the bawling and shouting hasn't worked, they resort to physical attack. I suppose people are just like sheep really, and have to take all their lifestyle ways from the television. Sad.
P Woodier, Manchester

There has always been violent conflict in society - Mods and Rockers down in Brighton, 80s football hooliganism, modern drinking/chav violence - They're all the same types of people, from their contemporary generation behaving in exactly the same way.
R Williams, London

The problem has very little to do with television and everything to do with a complete loss of the concept of consequences. It is no surprise that middle aged women are the worst, manners in supermarkets go right out the window the second they get a trolley in front of them.
Anna, Stafford

I finally emigrated to Canada one month ago yesterday. One of the driving reasons was the fact that I couldn't face starting a family in a country where aggression and intolerance seems to be acceptable.
Mat Jarvis-Horsman, MIssissauga, Canada

The whole confrontational attitude of people oozes through society, manners are almost non-existent and common sense has gone out the window.
Danny, London

Interesting that the replies are mostly from people living in the south-east. Perhaps it's the strain of living in that part of the world? I haven't seen much of that kind of conflict in the north.
Lloyd Patterson, Liverpool

I'd have to disagree with Lloyd Patterson regarding the SE of England being worse than the NW. He should take a trip to Birkenhead on the Wirral - where a large percentage of the tracksuited population is bordering on ferral. Here confrontation is a norm, and at night often fueled by alcohol.
Bobgepstein, Liverpool

Aggression is a learnt attitude. It is fed constantly by television, in the form of soaps, reality shows, football, violent films, etc. Children who grow up with this being pumped out at them several hours a day are affected by it - they absorb aggression as the normal way to be. Adults are not immune. Anyone who questions the power of television to produce this effect in society must have ulterior motives. It is just plainly obvious.
Brian, Abergele, Wales

From 1997 to 2001 I've lived in your country. I was absolutely bewildered that not only London is full of cameras supposed to provide security. In fact it is designed to control people. Your entire society seems to be dedicated to control people. Life in England is very policed. Then you witness on TV, cinema and music pretty outrageous behaviour. This has definitely a strong influence in people. Mix policing (George Orwell wouldn't believe that 1984 has been very well implemented) and media, than you get people stuck in the middle not knowing anymore, what's wrong and what's right. Life in your country reminds me in certain aspects being 'freed on bail'.
Frank Heydenreich, Paris

I don't agree and if you want a fight about it, outside now ALRIGHT !!
JH, Just on the way outside ...

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