If anything characterizes the twenty-first century, it’s
our inability to restrain ourselves for the benefit of
This is how Marci recalls the one encounter with rudeness that sticks in her mind:
“Needing to run a quick errand before work, I threw on a business suit and ran out the door. Driving north on a wide through street, I climbed a small hill to a stoplight. A man in another car was waiting for me to pass so he could pull out of his subdivision. I did pass and then stopped at the red light a few yards up to make a left turn. The man pulled up alongside me to turn right at the light and leaned out of his window. The nasty expletive exploded from his lips. It was pure spite delivered with shocking bluntness. At least the kids weren’t in the car to hear him. Shaken, I began to tremble—not with anger but with the sting of an unexpected wound.
“Why me? Why such an extreme reaction? Didn’t he see I was just a working mom, driving my minivan to work? I wasn’t ignorant or inconsiderate, selfish or dim-witted, and I certainly was not what he called me! The unfairness of it all hit me. Should I follow this man and at the first opportunity demand an explanation?
Maybe offer an apology? No, better to do my errand and get to work. I began to cry.
“I felt so abused, so punished, so violated, so deeply hurt, and eventually very angry that I could not defend myself. The incident affected me for days afterward. The next time I climbed that hill to the stoplight, I looked around to see what I might have done to cause the outburst. Eventually, after a long time, I realized it was more the man’s problem than mine.”
Marci’s tale is unusual only because she never did find out what caused the stranger’s outburst. Her emotions, however, are quite familiar. All of us have been shocked by people behaving rudely. Rude relatives, bosses, co-workers, “fellow” drivers, and strangers in literally all circumstances of life have made us feel at fault, helpless, and angry. We have bristled at the unfairness of their attacks and at times endured lingering hurt. Clearly a problem in the lives of individuals (with negative effects not only for its victims but also for its perpetrators), rudeness is also a social problem with costs estimated in the billions of dollars.
Rudeness may be everybody’s everyday problem, but millions remain unprepared for their encounters with it. This book aims to help you find exactly what rudeness is and how it works. Most important, you will learn how to defend yourself effectively and civilly from its daily challenges. Being civil is the sterling strategy for rudeness prevention. If you are respectful and considerate, most of the people with whom you come in contact will be motivated to be the same in return. When rudeness can’t be prevented, civility is still your best choice, as the stories that follow show over and over again. Although we cannot hope to ban rudeness from our lives altogether, we can limit both its occurrences and its impact. When we handle it well, we feel good about ourselves and reap other substantial benefits, such as healing wounded relationships. Being prepared is half the solution to any problem. Put this book to work for you, and never let rudeness catch you unprepared again.
Precisely because rudeness is quite common, it is not a
trivial issue. Indeed, in our day-to-day lives it is possibly
responsible for more pain than any other mortal failing.
Our ability to deal with rudeness is somehow related to
how we handle grief, and the series of steps that we go
through in coping: shock, denial, anger, acceptance,
and finally release. Of course the narrative for a loss
occurs over a protracted period of time, while the rude
encounter’s narrative is far shorter.
1. On Rudeness
Eight tough weeks into my stint as a reluctant conscript in the Italian Army, I was not looking forward to another ten months in the stark isolation of my remote Alpine outpost. I knew I would miss civilian freedom and the excitement of city life. Newly licensed to drive military trucks, I could see in my future only long and bleary-eyed shifts steering diesel behemoths along treacherous mountain roads. Then, one cold December morning, everything changed. Transfer orders came, like an extravagant early Christmas gift. I was to report to brigade’s headquarters that very evening. My C.O. informed me that I would be in charge of a new military newsletter and act as liaison with the local press. The brigade was headquartered south of the mountains in a lovely town graced by elegant Renaissance buildings, filled with art treasures, and swarming with life. Congenial work awaited me. Relative freedom came with the job. I felt as though I was rejoining civilization, and I was moved by my own good fortune. Still incredulous, I packed my few belongings, put on my travel uniform, and arranged a ride to the train station.
As the train pulled away from the frozen wilderness, my heart soared. The sky had loomed overcast since morning, but as we left the last of the shaded gorges and uncoiled onto the flatland, the afternoon sunshine made its glorious appearance. While the golden light raced us down the rust-colored countryside, I became sharply aware of a rush of happiness inside me. I was simply, perfectly happy. And with that happiness came the determination to always remember how it felt. There was no assurance that I would ever experience it again. I wanted to remember the electrical warmth of the train compartment, the smell of the vinyl upholstery, the preternatural quality of the light, the surge inside.
Moments like this make life worth living. They are rare and usually come out of the blue. We are visited by them just as the ancients were visited by their gods. This does not mean, however, that in the realm of the ordinary there is no room for happiness. It may be a happiness of a different kind, but it too makes our days worth living. When you are asked if you had a good day, what allows you to answer that you did? Not that you experienced rapturous joy but rather that a few defining—albeit mundane—good things happened to you. You may think, for instance:
“I really got a lot done at work today. The office finally came together as a team, without the usual power games and personality clashes. The Big Boss even acknowledged that my marketing plan was very smart. Is a promotion next? Salad with Jennifer at lunch was a treat. We must do that more often. She took it in stride that I had to remain at work late again tonight and said she would be glad to pick up the children at school. I will make it up to her. I am so lucky to have her in my life. The drive home was no struggle, for a change. No tailgating, no angry honking, no wild lane hopping. People were in a wonderful merge-and-let-merge mood. No stress there; in fact, some friendly waving. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was always like that?”
You may not have experienced a single “brilliant flash of enjoyment” (to use John Stuart Mill’s expression), but you are happy with what you did, happy with your day. You feel good about yourself and about the world. This ordinary happiness, this feeling of contentment can become your faithful companion. It’s the state of mind you refer to when you say that you are happy with your life. What you mean is that you are gratified by a number of good things that are part of your daily experience. How is life treating you? That depends to a large extent on how others are treating you and how you are treating them. In the preceding example, the events forming the good day all involved people relating positively to one another.
Unfortunately, as a society we seem to be failing the respect-and-consideration test. Opinion surveys have been reporting for years that Americans are quite concerned about the incivility they encounter every day. They feel they have been witnessing a steady decline of standards in their lifetimes and see no realistic indication that a trend reversal is around the corner. A detailed picture of incivility in the U.S. today will emerge from the following pages and chapters. Suffice it to say, for now, that the threat of incivility to the quality of our lives is not a trivial one. Common sense suggests that we should learn to cope as best we can with the rudeness that will certainly keep coming our way. To do that we need to acquire clear notions of what rudeness is, what it does, and what causes it.
WHAT IS RUDENESS?
As a Courtesy to the
Next Passenger May
We Suggest You Use
Your Towel to Wipe
Off The Washbasin
Have you ever noticed this kind of sign in an airplane restroom? I find it truly extraordinary. It is the voice of society reminding us that we are expected to care for one another. We are expected, mind you, not required. The sign makes no reference to a law or even a regulation. The key words are “as a courtesy” and “we suggest”—nothing more than a gentle prodding. But why should we clean out a basin that a perfect stranger will use next? Why spend time and energy on something that does not benefit us directly? Because it is the right thing to do. Being courteous to the next passenger is its own reward, the sole incentive. A remarkable notion!
Several decades ago, Sir John Fletcher Moulton, a distinguished British judge, spoke of a sphere of human action he called Obedience to the Unenforceable. Actions in this realm are neither prescribed by law nor chosen in absolute freedom. Rather, they are influenced by our sense of what is the proper, responsible, and decent thing to do. They fall under an unofficial code of duty to goodness. If we fail to yield our subway seat to a frail and aging fellow passenger, the law will not come after us. And yet, something makes us forgo our comfort. We are free to remain seated, yet we are not completely free. Civility compels us—at least some of us—to stand.
When we obey the Unenforceable and clean up after ourselves in an airplane restroom, in addition to being courteous to the next passenger, we keep alive an unwritten pact that benefits us as well. It is a pact with no one in particular and with persons of civil disposition in general, based on the principle of reciprocal altruism. If each passenger is willing to do his or her part, the basin will always be clean for everybody. It is an efficient and even enlightened system in which self-interest and altruism harmoniously converge. But it is also a vulnerable one, and its downfall is rudeness, one definition of which is “taking without giving.” The rude disregard the Unenforceable. They enjoy the clean basin but neglect to clean it in turn. They flout the rules of civility while counting on others to follow them.
I strove to keep in mind that by attacking my selfesteem,
he was attempting to gain control over me.
When we are polite, we confer regard. The original meaning of to regard is “to look,” “to notice,” and “to keep in view.” To disregard, then, is to look elsewhere, to withdraw attention—and, with it, respect and consideration. Rudeness is disregard. It diminishes and demeans. By treating others curtly, we put them in their place, which is a way of controlling them and thwarting their attempts at controlling us. Through rudeness we show off, dominate, intimidate, coerce, threaten, humiliate, dissuade, and dismiss. Rudeness is control through invalidation. Acts of rudeness can ruin our days and sometimes remain etched in our memory for years. They come in many varieties, but they have one thing in common: They bruise and wound. This is the reason rudeness warrants the investment of time and energy necessary to understand it and learn effective ways of dealing with it.
Excerpted from The Civility Solution by P. M. Forni.
Copyright © 2008 by P. M. Forni.
Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.