04/02/2011 11:00 GMT | Updated 22/05/2015 10:12 BST

Why Have We Become A Nation Of Meanies?

When Ricky Gervais hosted the Golden Globes in Los Angeles last month, his near-the-knuckle gags about some of Hollywood's biggest stars caused outrage.

The A-List audience was visibly shocked and offended: Robert Downey Jr said the show had been "mean spirited" and the Washington Post later asked "Are we at war with England?"

An over-reaction?

Well, yes.

For me, the biggest shock of the night was the realisation that it's taken our American cousins so long to notice that us Brits have crossed over to the dark side.

Forget about British reserve, restraint and politeness: we've given up on good manners, shrugged off social niceties and decided that it's better to be nasty than nice.

So why did we become so mean?

I have a sneaking suspicion that we can trace it back to a certain Mr Simon Cowell.

Until Pop Idol, X Factor and Britain's Got Talent burst onto our screens it wasn't really the done thing to openly criticise – let alone mock – other people. We might think it, or even whisper it, but we wouldn't contemplate actually saying it out loud.

But reality TV shows actively encourage us to play judge, jury and executioner, and we've discovered how much fun we can have by slagging off people who can't sing, look a bit odd or have an inflated view of their own talents.

And following Simon's example, we've come to the conclusion that it's better to be honest, blunt and sometimes just plain hurtful – but that's okay really because we're only speaking as we see it, right?


Trouble is, I suspect that Simon's Mr Nasty image is just a public persona: he's a pantomime villain. I doubt he spends his weekends telling his real friends that they are "distinctly average" or slagging off their latest hairstyle or new outfit. Acting mean is just his day job.

And unlike Ricky Gervais, not many of us have a public platform to say what we thinking, or the nerve to say it to someone's face. So we say it behind their backs or head online to vent our spleens and it's making us unkind, unpleasant and unfair.

The internet has undoubtedly made it easier for us to say exactly what we think, especially as we can do it anonymously. Both Facebook and Twitter give us plenty of opportunity to whinge and moan, but if we've really got an axe to grind, then we need look no further than the online forums and newspapers that encourage discussion and reader comment. Here you'll find numerous nasty threads of criticism, where celebs are told to go on a diet/eat more pies or dismissed as a waste of space, writers are slagged off for being smug, shallow, or incompetent and anyone who posts a comment themselves risks being ripped to shreds by everyone who disagrees with them.

It's funny for about five minutes, but after a while it leaves a bad taste in your mouth, especially if you ever have the misfortune to be on the receiving end.

I'm not suggesting that we should turn into a nation of perpetually smiley happy people, but as my Gran used to say, if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

The popularity of period dramas like Cranford, Lark Rise to Candleford and Downton Abbey suggests that we're nostalgic for a time when life was a whole lot nicer.

And at my daughter's infant school the teachers give out weekly medals for being kind and thoughtful.

So maybe it's about time that us grown ups learned to play nicely, too.

I've got a feeling that we'd be much happier as a result.