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Common Discourtesy

January 6, 2001

“I mean, they’re so loud,” the concerned father is saying to me out in the foyer. “I can’t really hear what you’re saying. I know you’ve said you quiet the parents when the children are distracted. I’m not worried about that.  But what about the example they’re setting? They’re being so rude!  And here the children are supposed to be learning about good manners. I just think -”

 

He is interrupted by an electronic rendition of Take Me Out To The Ball Game. A cell phone. His cell phone.

 

“This’ll just take a second,” he says, reaching for his coat pocket. It’s obvious that he expects me to wait.

 

As he stands there conversing with an unseen interloper, an uninvited guest at my event, I resist the urge to say, “Are you joking?” I would, but he would probably be appalled at the consummate rudeness of my interrupting his very important phone call.  He doesn’t think about the fact that I am taking time away from the children to hear his concerns.  It doesn’t occur to him that my time is valuable.  And this is just another example of what is, I am afraid, the increasingly common discourtesy that is spreading through our society under the guise of “personal freedom,” which should truthfully be termed, self-centeredness.

 

Now I’m not talking about the kind of self-centeredness that enables you to ask yourself what you want in life, and who you want to be, and all the other questions about which we are supposed to be open and honest with ourselves.  And I’m not talking about the need to take time for ourselves, and make ourselves number one so that we’ll be better mothers or fathers or spouses or any of the other roles we have assumed in life.  I am talking about the growing lack of regard we have for the “other” as we pursue our life’s goals.

 

Have you noticed the children running amok at the shopping mall or cinema complex?  Splashing through fountains, sliding down handrails, screaming as they play tag.  Have you seen their parents?  Sometimes it’s hard to tell who they are, isn’t it?  Most of the time they are ignoring this behavior.  Why?  Because you don’t matter.  It just does not occur to them that their children may be bothering “other” people.  And worse, many wouldn’t care even if they were aware. Their freedom to pursue pleasure is what is important.  Other people’s right to enjoyment and peace doesn’t matter.

 

This common disregard and disrespect of the other can be observed all around you - if you are aware.  People often don’t say “excuse me” when they accidentally bump or brush past you - as if you were invisible.  The salesperson dismisses you the second your purchase is made, handing you the bag almost as an afterthought as she goes on to the next customer.  People talk during the movie as though they were at home in their own family room instead of in a theater full of moviegoers who wish to lose themselves in the experience, not hear inane comments like “Is he wearing Nikes?”  Or worse, “What did he say?”  Maybe if you weren’t talking so much . . .

 

Many of you are thinking, yes, I have noticed.  It does bother me.  But what can I do about it?

 

I’m glad you asked.

 

You know how you’ve told your children to be a good example to their friends in order to give them some pride and motivation to do the right thing?  Forgive me, but I’m going to ask you to examine your own behavior.  After all, teaching by example is the most powerful method of teaching.  So here goes.

 

Do you take your cell phone to the movies?  What is your excuse.  Stock quotes?  Babysitter?  How in the world did we survive as a species before we could have our cell phones everywhere we went?  I have just one question.  If it is so important that someone can reach you, what are you doing at the movies?  

 

If the people sitting behind you haven’t quieted down by the opening credits (and after seven previews, they should be all talked out,) be brave; ask them to stop.  Nicely.  Say please.  Smile as if they obviously had no idea they were bothering anyone.  They didn’t.

 

What do you say (or yell) to the guy in the Mercedes who just cut you off?  What about when your kids are in the car?  What did they just learn?

 

How do you respond to the sullen sales associate?  Do you talk on your cell phone all the way through the transaction as if they don’t even matter?  Have you ever noticed that a tiny bit of effort - a smile, a how’s-your-day, actually surprises them?  They aren’t always treated like people.  They respond.  Wouldn’t you?

 

If someone bumps into you at Pottery Barn, you say “oh, excuse me” if they, um, forget.  Nicely.  Don’t be sarcastic.  Remember, you’re a good example.

 

It is easy to be discouraged by the lack of courtesy we observe around us.  But instead of getting mad, or growing numb, let’s take action.  The truth is, people generally respond to being treated well.  They like it.  And they usually reciprocate.  But someone has to smile first, to say hello, to be interested in the other person, the stranger who passes through our life in a seemingly inconsequential role.  And the best part is, you are not only making someone else’s life nicer, you’re . . . well, you know.                                                                    •GMS

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