Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Rudeness of Strangers

Rudeness is busting out all over. I am not thinking of your rude friends who cancel appointments at the last minute or do not return your emails. Here I want to focus on the way many of us feel assaulted and assailed by strangers acting rudely.

I suspect that this is most prevalent in large cities where people feel that they are shielded by the cloak of anonymity. When you do not feel like an identifiable member of a community, you do not care whether your behavior irritates other people. Yet,if anyone does interfere with your embarrassing breach of public decorum, you are likely to react with hostility.

We Americans may not be very good at being polite, but we excel at taking offense.

You are patiently waiting to place your order for a Vente Latte at Starbucks and the guy standing next to you is shouting into his cell phone. It doesn't matter whether he is barking at his secretary, fighting with his wife, or arguing about the World Series. You just want him to shut the blank up. He is violating your peace of mind, and preventing you from meditating or ruminating.

And you do not know what to do about it. You are too polite to fling a glass of water at his cell phone, but you are feeling that this man deserves some serious punishment.

You can blame it on technology. Without the vast array of telephonic gadgets that saturate our world, a lot of this rudeness would not be happening. But you do not want to be a total Luddite. You start wondering why there isn't an app for loutish behavior.

Of else, you can blame it on the culture. People have become convinced that they have an inalienable right to free and open self-expression. If you dare criticize the creative genius that is being displayed to a store-full of Starbucks customers you will be treated as though you were undermining his mental health.

Thanks to the therapy culture, when we interrupt someone who is egregiously violating our privacy we are immediately attacked for violating his privacy.

It's a great world, isn't it.

The question remains: how should you deal with the rudeness of strangers?

According to Amy Alkon's book, "I See Rude People: One Woman's Battle to Beat Some Manners into Impolite Society," the best approach is to answer rudeness with rudeness. As New York Times writer Douglas Quenqua so aptly put it, Alkon seems to believe that "two rudes make a polite." Link here.

Alkon recommends that you fight back, that you out-rude the person who is offending you. Teach the boor a lesson, get in his face, call him out on his rudeness.

It may or may not stop him from being rude, but revenge is sweet, and, aside from creating a potentially dangerous scene, you would gain the satisfaction of making him pay, of getting revenge.

Alkon seems to believe that this tactic involves shaming. Actually, it involves guilt and punishment, and feels more like vigilante justice than shaming.

Surely, shaming is a good idea, and people are often shamed into improving their manners and decorum. But the notion that you can guilt-trip someone into better manners is shortsighted.

I was first made aware of Alkon's book on Dr. Helen Smith's blog. Among the interesting remarks offered by her commenters one stood out: Alkon's approach might work for her because she is a woman. If you are a man and you try to get in another man's face over bad behavior in the subway, you will risk more than an unpleasant verbal rejoinder.

On these issues I am happy to propose shaming as a good solution to this problem. In so doing I place myself on the side of the etiquette mavens Quenqua consulted for his article.

They insist that confrontation is not the way to go. They prefer, as I do, "withering glances and artfully worded comments."

Miss Manners believes that answering rudeness with rudeness simply increases the amount of rudeness in the world. You cannot shame someone into adopting good manners if your own manners have descended to his level.

But unless you are feeling especially saintly, the opposite tactic, turning the other cheek, is not a solution either. It might make you feel like a patsy.

So, how do you find a middle ground between lowering yourself to the same level as the rude stranger and allowing your sensibility to be assaulted with impunity?

The answer must involve offering a response that allows the other person to become aware of his own obnoxious behavior without behaving badly yourself.

The only way to do this is to avoid the tendency to punish the person, but to try out more polite and old-fashioned ways of shaming. At the least, they are polite and set a good example.

AS the etiquette mavens say, it is difficult to promote good behavior when you are behaving badly.

Begin with the withering gaze. Staring at someone who is misbehaving is a not-so-subtle reminder that he should take cognizance of the existence of other people and their feelings. Shaming does not involve getting revenge; its purpose is to allow the rude stranger to become aware of how he looks to others. If he has forgotten himself, your gaze should act as a gentle reminder.

I also favor artfully-worded comments. Again, they should allow the rude stranger to become aware of how he looks to others. Among the more common examples are: "Get a room;" "Would you mind speaking a little louder; I missed the last sentence;" "Perhaps you would feel more comfortable if you discussed it outside;" "Where is my iPod now that I really need it."

All of these are polite and pointed. If the rude stranger does not respond, it is probably best to let the matter drop.

In other circumstances it is usually best to walk away. If you are sitting in a restaurant and the couple next to you has very bad table manners, you can ask the waiter to change your table. You need not address the offending couple.

But if you are riding the New York subway system and someone is playing music loudly, it is probably a bad idea to intervene. At best, you can change cars at the next stop. At worst, grin and bear it. Unless you are stronger and armed, you should not to try to shame someone who is acting obnoxiously on a subway car.

One other alternative might be to inquire about the music. Then, the offending person would have to turn it down to answer your question.

As it happened, I was once seated on an airplane next to someone who was drinking too much and giving every appearance of being ready to keep drinking and becoming more obnoxious.

Clearly, I could not say anything about his drinking. So I tried to start up a conversation. We were flying from Paris, so I asked how he had liked Paris. Perhaps he was simply anxious about flying across the ocean, but we had a good conversation, after which he simply fell asleep.

1 comment:

Unknown said...


Nice post, I felt good when I saw that you're not suggesting letting the matter go, but I don't think your method solved all cases.

For example, how would you respond to someone that is insluting you (giving the fact that you're sensitive), because you refused him (ex. refused to touch his dog, or because you told him that some of his actions bother you)..

Wouldn't physical engagement help you forgetting about your bad day, in my experience if someone was rude to me once in a day, my whole day (at least) is ruined, and I think the only solution to feel better is beating him till he apologizes.

Thank you :)