Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Strangers Acting Rudely

I've blogged about this before, but the question is worth more reflection: What should you do when strangers have bad manners? How far can you go to ensure that everyone demonstrates proper decorum in public?

A previous post of mine is here. Grotts' post is here.

Do you have the right or the duty to correct ill mannered strangers? If you do so, will you be striking a blow for civility or will you be aggravating the problem.

My answer, and that of Lisa Grotts and several other authoritative voices on etiquette, is: You do not have the right and you should not do it. As one writer so aptly put it: two rudes don't make a polite.

Of course, your best approach is almost always to ignore the behavior and refuse to engage with the person who is evincing it.

Unless, of course, their behavior is sufficiently obnoxious to be interfering with your ability to enjoy the concert. Then you are obliged to make a remark that allows them to become aware of the effect their antics are having on the rest of the concert-going public. Making them aware means assuming that once they are aware they will naturally stop what they are doing.

In that case you are not criticizing or correcting, but holding up a mirror to their bad behavior.

According to experts, the larger rule seems to be that you should mind your own business.

Surely, when you are eating lunch with a group of people and one of them has bad table manners, you should not correct him. The same applies to bad grammar.

I am inclined to believe that an adult should never correct another adult's table manners.

Why so? Among other reasons the gesture is demeaning and infantilizing. You are asserting a degree of social superiority that is normally not welcome among friends.

But what happens when your friend's fly is open. Isn't it correct to point it out, discretely? Or if your friend has a piece of spinach caught in his teeth? Isn't it helpful to say something? If you were in his position you would surely want to know before you had embarrassed yourself more.

Here, the answer is: yes and no. If you are a very, very close friend, you should make a gesture that alerts your friend to the problem. If you are not, you would do best to avert your gaze.

Correcting someone else's bad manners is, as Grotts puts it, a willful intrusion into a zone of personal privacy. Most such intrusions will feel like aggressive acts and will often be treated as such.

In the old days of psychoanalysis, analysts assumed that patients were resisting their interpretations because their fragile egos could not bear to think that they harbored incestuous wishes toward their mothers.

By now no one would even think of taking offense at such an accusation. Everyone will pretty much take it in stride. At best, it is an unconscious motivation, so, why worry?

Most people save real resistance and overt hostility for comments about their personal appearance and table manners.

Perhaps they know better than Freud what really matters in life.

1 comment:

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