Can Rudeness Ever Be Polite? (The Answer Is No)
I have good news and bad news from my informal weekend survey of Washington-area civility.
The good news? At a screening of "Up" last night at the Regal Cinemas in Rockville I didn't see a single texter. There was a teenager texting in front of me during the pre-feature ads and coming attractions, but once the main event started, he put his phone away. Maybe the little pre-show announcements--sponsored by Sprint--did the job.
As for the bad news, My Lovely Wife and I witnessed something that shows how those who demand civility risk committing the worst sort of incivility. On Saturday night we went to a Thai restaurant on Rockville Pike that we'd never been to before. It was not a fancy place and it was immediately apparent it was popular with families.
A toddler in a nearby booth gave off an ear-splitting banshee wail periodically, the sort of noise a kid makes just because he likes to make that noise. Neither parent seemed much interested in saying, "Inside voice" or "Honey, please don't do that."
On the other side of us was a table filled with several families, and kids ranging from 6 or 7 down to a newborn baby. I really hadn't noticed them until a 50ish woman at a table across from ours wheeled around in her chair and shouted at the children: "Will you be quiet! This isn't a @*ing McDonald's!"
My wife and I stared at each other slackjawed. First of all, it sort of was a @*ing McDonald's. I mean, there were waiters and a nice decor but the fact that it was filled with families suggested it was a place that welcomed them. Secondly, the kids weren't being that bad. But most importantly, screaming at other people's children--swearing at them--is rude. It's ruder than being a noisy kid.
The woman, who was dining with a man, kept muttering about how poorly-behaved the kids were. "It's not the kids' fault," she kept saying. "I blame the parents."
A woman from the other table came over and said in a reasonable voice that she didn't like the way the woman had spoken to her children. "I'll talk to them however I like," the aggrieved woman screamed back. "It's after 8 o'clock. I should be able to enjoy a nice meal without them waking me up."
"Waking me up"?
To her credit, the mom didn't escalate. She walked calmly back to her seat.
My wife decided that the complaining woman was drunk. That wouldn't excuse her behavior, though it might explain it. What could she have done differently? I suppose she could have asked the server if they might move to a different table, though given the numerous families I don't think anywhere was kid-free. I suppose she could have made a reasonable and specific request to a grown-up at the other table: "This little boy is kicking my chair. Can he trade seats with you?" Or something like that.
But, really, I think she should have just ignored it, just as my wife and I ignored the jungle-bird shriek of the toddler near our booth. Asking someone to be civil by being rude destroys any credibility you might have. Also, when it's something involving kids, the stakes are immediately higher. There are very few good ways of telling someone you think he or she is a bad parent. Impromptu parenting tips should be delivered in only he most dire circumstances: "Sir, I wish you wouldn't beat your daughter in the grocery store." "Ma'am, I'm worried that by playing on the escalator, your son may lose a digit."
Something similar happened when I was at a hardware store over the weekend. I had to buy some rust-proofing primer and spray paint and as I was finishing up with the cashier I heard an older man nearby grumble loudly: "Don't take bags. Don't take bags." I think he was speaking to those of us in line. He sounded really mad, then he said to a woman next to him "They take those bags and they're just going to throw them away when they get home."
He must have meant the plastic bags the cashiers were putting our purchases in. I guess the old was worried about the environment. Well, good for him. But admonishing strangers in line not to take bags--in an exasperated tone of voice that was not at all friendly--is not going to bring people around to his cause.
These incidents reminded me that Radical Civility shouldn't be used as a way of expressing superiority or browbeating someone else. They also reminded me that sometimes you have to just grin and bear it, whether it's a kid you think is being annoying or people putting their newly-bought cans of spray paint in a plastic bag.
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