“What Happens When People Stop Being Polite” by Chuck Klosterman (2003)

December 5, 2012 | Posted in Essays in America |

Chuck Klosterman’s essays on pop culture have made him an authority on such topics as MTV’s ‘The Real World.’ (Photo credit: Scribner.)

As a New York Times bestselling author and essayist, Chuck Klosterman is known for taking pop culture to heightened levels of philosophy and introspect—placing anything from unassuming programs like Saved by the Bell to The Real World under an exhaustive microscope of critique and wit.

Klosterman is as avid a rock music critic as he is a sports writer, and has written and edited for the likes of GQ, The New York Times Magazine, Spin, Esquire, The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Believer, The Onion’s A.V. Club, and ESPN. He was born in Minnesota and raised in North Dakota before beginning his prolific career.

Klosterman is the New York Times bestselling author of Eating the Dinosaur, Downtown Owl, Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, Killing Yourself to Live, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs and Fargo Rock City. Organized by essay-per-chapter, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is an original set of essays structured in the vein of a mixtape.

One of the essays in Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs is “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite,” Klosterman’s now-famous take on The Real World. It comprises the third chapter of the book and, true to an album’s track list form, is represented as starting “:26” minutes in (as indicated by the table of contents and corresponding page number, beginning on page 26).

Essay’s Form

Klosterman’s essay, “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite,” generally assumes the first person narrative, using personal anecdotes from his formative years to supplement his thesis. He often blends theory and memoir into one form.

In the instance of “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite,” the  style and tone are that of amused social scientist, comically recounting his Odd Couple relationship with his college roommate as they engaged in ritual viewings of The Real World—a show and topic on which he has become regarded as a critical authority.

Using these various techniques, as well as a bevy of referential pop culture tidbits, Klosterman deconstructs the cultural impacts that have continued to pervade society’s norms and attitudes thanks to MTV’s reality TV phenomenon.

Immediate Context

The cast members in MTV’s ‘The Real World,’ according to Klosterman, have become self-aware caricatures attempting to fit tried-and-true stereotypes for the sake of viewer relativity. (‘The Real World: New Orleans’ cast: credit MTV.com)

Klosterman’s analysis of the trends and formulas made apparent in MTV’s The Real World, as well as the now-normative “types” made stereotypes, borders on scholarly. Were it not for his wit and sense of irreverence, this essay might have enjoyed publication in scholarly journals (not that his comic flair kept this from happening in more commercial outlets).

By making correlations to John Hughes’ “Brat Pack” films of the ’80s and even the supposed success behind Hitchcock’s films, Klosterman investigates the power of archetypes in the show, and the relativity which translates upon an audience as a mass media effect—e.g., “During that first RW summer, I saw kids on MTV who reminded me of people I knew in real life. By 1997, the opposite was starting to happen; I kept meeting new people who were like old Real World characters” (Klosterman 29).

Accordingly, the show’s requisite themes of race, sexuality—and, more importantly, murkiness between “reality” and scripted, narrative canon—come under scrutiny, with Klosterman pondering: when cast mates are fighting, crying, breaking the fourth wall, and even dying after a season’s finale, is it really just a show anymore? All this while the audience pokes fun at every inebriated caricature along the way.

Subsequent Appearances

Originally published in Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Simon and Schuster, Klosterman’s essay—largely praised by critics for its accessible and insightful prose regarding the pop culture staple–has since been made available in myriad formats. Due to the essay’s popularity, the publisher has made it available in an individual, e-book format, in addition to a Kindle format.

‘What Happens When People Stop Being Polite’ made its first appearance in Klosterman’s collection of essays, ‘Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs.’ (‘Source: http://bookcoverarchive.com/)

“What Happens When People Stop Being Polite” has also been anthologized in an e-book series, entitled Chuck Klosterman on Film and Television.

In 2006, Scribner and RecordedBooks developed the essay (and with it, the rest of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs) as an audio book—appropriate, given its mixtape juxtaposition in the original book form.

Bibliographical Citations

Film and Television series:


Individual Essay in e-reader form:


Kindle format:


Audio book:


Original collection:

Klosterman, Chuck. “What Happens When People Stop Being Polite.” Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: a Low Culture Manifesto. New York: Scribner, 2003. 29. Print.

Text and images: Adam Clement.