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Can Rudeness Ever Be Polite? (The Answer Is No)

RadicalCivility.jpgI 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.


By John Kelly  |  July 13, 2009; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Radical Civility  
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When parents are ignoring disruptive behavior of children I think it's fine to *politely* request that children quiet down - for instance, if a child is running back and forth and it's dangerous or disruptive and parents don't say anything, I think it's fine to say to the child "running is for outside, in a restaurant we walk." Hopefully the parents will clue in. However, if the parents have told the child to "use an indoor voice" and the child is exasperating - seeking attention or just uncooperative, sympathy and patience is all you can expect. If it's too disruptive, parents can reasonably be expected to take the food to go. After 8pm - any kids who shriek uncontrollably should be in bed! (from a mom of 2 under 3...)

Posted by: MomSarah | July 13, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

I agree, I wouldn't take my daughter (15 months) out to dinner after 8 pm, but I laugh when I see these people who want you to "control" your children. Sometimes there is no controlling, there is just moderating their behavior and in the worst case, removing them from the situation (each parent takes turns eating, how relaxing is that?)

We are trying to teach our toddler restaurant manners, but hey, sometimes she makes noise. And when she gets restless, we know it's time to move on.

Posted by: chiquita2 | July 13, 2009 1:27 PM | Report abuse

Speaking here as a childless person -- if the parents are trying to control the child I have a lot more sympathy and patience than if the parents aren't even trying (and I abhor the "isn't that cute" attitude). In this case (kids running amok in a restaurant after 8pm), I think I'd ask the manager to move me to another table. I'd make it clear the reason has nothing to do with the server, it's because of the kids. If they can't/won't move me, I'd ask my food be packaged to go and again make it clear the kids are the reason I'm leaving.

Posted by: mensa58 | July 13, 2009 2:02 PM | Report abuse

My ploy is to avoid restaurants that are remotely 'family.' That includes all fast food places, restaurants with clowns or mice as representatives, and most Mexican, Italian, or Marriott-owned places.

My biggest peeve is the hell phone users who think their First Amendment rights cancel out my right to peace and quiet.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | July 13, 2009 2:46 PM | Report abuse

I would rather hear a toddler occasionally squeal than a bitter old hag cursing.

Posted by: mintchocolatechip | July 13, 2009 2:49 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: mintchocolatechip | July 13, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

mint: Yes -- I seem to be a magnet for those people. Try riding on a commuter bus surrounded by 4 or 5 who try to out-yell each other. Then there's the one who gives a mile-by-mile of our progress home. I've heard more harangues about job dissatisfaction, family disputes, bowel problems, insomnia, and financial worries from complete stranges than I care to hear.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | July 13, 2009 3:16 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the first poster. I think we all understand that the drunk cursing lady was wrong in her actions, but not necessarily her intent. There has to be a line somewhere, and people with children need to be respectful of people who don't have their children with them.

We understand that there are limits as to what you can "control," but you better be making an earnest effort.

Posted by: VTDuffman | July 13, 2009 3:32 PM | Report abuse

i don't recall reading that these kids were running around. but even if they were, once a person opens their mouth and uses profanity against my children, ALL BETS ARE OFF!

i personally try to keep my children in order while in public but kids will be kids and it can be a struggle. if they are disturbing someone, i don't mind the looks, the sighs or even the occassional 'excuse me but....' (thankfully it has never gotten that far). HOWEVER, if you are so bold as to curse at my child, you must be bold enough to hear what i will have to say back. i bet when i get finished, you will no longer have an appetite.

Posted by: my2cents8 | July 13, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

On the plastic bag complainer, I'd love to have been in line there. Even though I'm a dedicated recycler, I'd have said something like "give me an extra bag so I can go toss it in the Anacostia."

I know, I know, be civil.

Posted by: capsfan77 | July 13, 2009 5:02 PM | Report abuse

Some people shouldn't be parents but (Sigh) they are.
After two shrieks or one 'Running with a knife' type deal address the parents.
After that, call the manager.
NEVER scream at a child unless it's life or death.
If the kids are acting politely tell them and their parents how nice and polite they are.

Posted by: Etek | July 13, 2009 6:13 PM | Report abuse

To me, most kids belong in a Zoo these days. Simply because many kids act like a bunch of drunk Frat boys doesn't give license to scream constantly. Chuck-E-Cheese or a amusement park is fine for this kind of behavior. Places with a playground.

The lack of parental supervision and control which takes EFFORT leaves you with kids who don't behave at school, don't listen to you when you are older and will raise the same kind of brats.

At one time, the kids would have got a spanking from another parent for acting so uncouth.

Posted by: khornbeak | July 14, 2009 9:53 AM | Report abuse

The person should say something to the management who should tell the parents that their kids are being disruptive.

Again, about being civil in other situations, I find 9 out of 10 times, if you politely say, "Excuse me, can you keep your voice down?" will get the desired response. In this case, even politely talking to the kids will get a response precisely because you are an adult and the unruly kids don't have any issues with you like they do with their parents.

Posted by: cmecyclist | July 14, 2009 1:52 PM | Report abuse

If you have children, you have certain responsibilities. One of them is that if you take those children to a restaurant or other public place, it is your duty to ensure that they do not act disruptive. If your toddler absolutely has to utter periodic earsplitting screeches, remove him or her from the scene until the screeches stop. I did exactly that with my daughter when she was not quite 2. She started acting up in a not-fancy restaurant, so after the appropriate warnings I took her out of her high chair, carried her to the car, and buckled her into her car seat. There she sat for maybe a minute, screaming in outrage, before she calmed down and promised to behave. As I re-entered the restaurant, a somewhat older woman stopped me and thanked me. I think she was shocked to see someone actually refusing to put up with unacceptable behavior.

Was it relaxing for me to leave the table for a few minutes, leaving my wife with our very young son (under 1 year)? Not really, but that's part of the deal. If you have small children and you are not willing to sacrifice 2 minutes of your dinner to enforce discipline, you have no business taking your children to restaurants, even not-fancy ones.

Posted by: ajsmithva | July 17, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

Having read the part of the post where John said he did not notice any problem with the table of kids but was gobsmacked when the woman shouted a profanity at them, I do not understand why this turned into a diatribe about misbehaving children instead of one about a drunken loutish woman. Civility in no way condones loud profanity in a crowded restaurant, especially in a family friendly environment.

Posted by: jimbo1949 | July 17, 2009 3:40 PM | Report abuse

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