The Civility Solution
What To Do When People Are Rude
By P. M. Forni
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2008 P. M. Forni
All rights reserved.
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. Everything. The way the world felt the moment I was happy.
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 self-esteem, he was attempting to gain control over me.
— Lawrence Sanders
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.
Suppose your friend and co-worker Matt says he's going to invite you to lunch to meet someone he thinks could help you in your work. Then Matt invites someone else instead. He is not targeting you in particular for rude treatment — he just found it more convenient to change plans. He also skips his four o'clock appointment with another colleague and permanently forgets to return several phone calls. That's how he functions: He is rude to the world. Although some people might label Matt's behavior lack of consideration, I call it "unfocused rudeness." Those indulging in this kind of disregard let doors swing into other people's faces, play loud music late at night, march into crowded elevators before anyone can get off, and litter without remorse. They may even put their booted feet on your brand-new sofa while decrying today's civility decline, but they do so in a haze of obliviousness rather than out of deliberate choice. They are rude to you because you happen to be around.
You can always choose to ignore unfocused rudeness. If you are inconvenienced by it, if it hurts your feelings, or if it puts you in an awkward position, by all means speak up. Doing so will make it less likely that you have to deal with such slights again. In the case of the business lunch that never materialized, you can say to Matt: "You know, when you invited me to have lunch with you and Dr. Powell, I cleared my calendar for the whole week to make sure I could. I thought you meant what you said. I didn't expect that you would just not call." Unfocused rudeness is generic and mindless, and it does not bear the sting of hostility. But it is still rudeness, and it can disrupt and annoy, as the two following examples show.
A librarian notices that one of the computers available to the library's patrons has been unplugged. A young woman is sitting at the working computer next to it. "Have you been using this computer?" the librarian asks, pointing to the disabled one. "No," she says, "I turned it off because it was making noise." "You disabled a computer that others might need?" asks the librarian. The young woman shrugs. "It was making noise. I didn't feel like listening to it." The librarian turns the computer on and says, "Please, don't turn it off again." Sadly, she is very much used to seeing her patrons choose the course of action that is easiest for them without much regard for the needs of others.
The famous author arrives at the bookstore thirty-five minutes late for her reading. Quick to blame bad traffic, she does not mention bad planning on her part. Is she happy finally to greet the local loyal and curious, some of whom have waited for an hour or more to see and hear her? Not quite. She informs her audience that this is the last stop on an exhausting cross-country book tour, and you know how wretched those things are. (None of the aspiring writers in the room do know, but of course they would like to with all of their souls.) So there she is, expected to summarize her novel's plot as she has done so many times in the last four weeks. "I'm starting to hate the damned thing," she says half-seriously. By the way, has anyone here noticed that her book's title was taken from the Bible? No? Well, never mind. They didn't at her readings in San Diego and Cleveland either. Actually, she says, biblical allusions are all through the book, but people just don't get them. By now some members of the audience resent being portrayed as sorry ignoramuses standing between her and her rest and relaxation. They would welcome a few gracious words, but she appears totally unaware of her audience's feelings, her common sense no match for her narcissism.
UNFOCUSED RUDENESS WITH CELL PHONES
An enormous amount of unfocused rudeness is generated by the use of cell phones in public places. Not only is the inconsiderate handling of cellular communication annoying for those exposed to this form of noise pollution but cellular rudeness can also be disruptive of the client–service provider encounter. The Spokane pharmacist Christie Toribara deals every day with clients who expect to conduct their business with her while on the phone with someone else. "It is quite an effort," she says, "to gather the needed information from clients, including spelling of name, address, phone number, allergies, and insurance, to proceed with the filling of a prescription. The problem presents itself again when clients pick up their prescriptions. Most states require medication counseling for the clients' safety. When they are engrossed in conversation on the cell phone, my clients miss or don't understand important points. Often they will not step back to let others be helped, thus slowing things down for everybody else. This is a waste of time for the the pharmacist, who cannot dispense the medications until the counseling is completed. It would be a simple courtesy toward others and the professional staff to turn off or not answer cell phones when seeking help at a pharmacy."
Suppose, now, that rather than simple lack of consideration, your colleague Matt's reneging on his invitation is part of a power game intended to affirm his dominance. This would be focused rudeness. Focused rude people will keep interrupting you, hoping to impress the boss, ask you embarrassing questions in front of your co-workers, gossip maliciously about your private life, and even race you to the coffee machine for the last cup to avoid making a new pot. When you and your actions or accomplishments do not conform to their wishes, they respond aggressively. Focused rudeness is often caused by anger and is mean-spirited. An act of focused rudeness can leave you feeling violated and feeling vulnerable to being controlled by the other person.
Sometimes blatant and sometimes stealthy, focused rudeness does more serious damage than the unfocused kind. The first thing to do when coping with an act of rudeness is to assess quickly whether it is focused or unfocused. Determining which will help you decide what to do. Has Matt "forgotten" to invite you because he envies your achievements? If so, is he likely to hurt you again? In what ways? You may still decide not to do anything for the moment, except file the incident away in your mind for future reflection and action. If you are detecting a pattern of bias against you, consider making an appointment with Matt to discuss the issue. A good alternative is to speak with a supervisor. Continued focused rudeness can qualify as bullying or harassment.
PORTRAIT OF FOCUSED RUDENESS
Virginia still remembers being the victim of mean-spirited focused rudeness many years ago. Proud of her brand-new, spotlessly white canvas sneakers, she hoped that they would forever keep their bright, clean look. She knew they wouldn't, but they were still in mint condition, and throughout the day she couldn't help but occasionally glance at them, smiling inside. She felt silly — a small thing like a pair of sneakers giving her such pleasure — but who cared? She wore them to a barbecue party that evening. The patio was crowded, beer flowing, the smell of grease in the air, the floor littered with fallen food. Beer bottle in hand, an old friend from high school asked her if she was having a good time, and she said yes. Then he noticed her sneakers. "Brand-new sneaks, eh?" he said, grinning. "They need to be broken in." He stepped on one of her shoes, rubbing his dirty sole on the white canvas, and then stepped on the other as well. Virginia stared at the smeared sneakers and at him, aghast and feeling violated.
THE OFFENSIVE ANCHOVIES
There are rude people (plenty), and there are people who can be rude (virtually everybody else). In other words, there are both habitual and occasional offenders. And both kinds can engage in both focused and unfocused rudeness. The combination that we witness more often is unfocused and occasional. Incidents of this kind are also more likely to have satisfactory resolutions. Here's an example from my own life. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Civility Solution by P. M. Forni. Copyright © 2008 P. M. Forni. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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