I’m bitter. I admit that. Most of my friends, my family and certainly my husband will attest to this. I’m the first to point out the everyday annoyances that combine to elevate the blood pressure – grocery shoppers parking their carts dead center in the aisle while they shop – can’t pass, can’t ram the cart; traffic; traffic caused by drivers loitering at the light even after it turns green; clearly un-showered and un-groomed travelers in airports – I mean, take off the jammy pants when you fly! Wash your hair!; audible cell phone conversations at inappropriate times (school functions) and locations (restaurants); people who stand too close in lines (please stop breathing on me, please stop breathing on me) – the list is endless. Here’s the question I keep going back to…is it me or everyone else? Do I have a tolerance problem or have we all lost our manners?
The word ‘ridiculous’ makes its way into my daily discourse more than almost any other (‘coffee’ is up there, though). I find the behavior and habits of the general public to be, frankly, ridiculous. Common courtesy has gone out the window. It used to be that we took up our personal space in the universe and made way for and respected others’. We kept our voices to a normal volume at restaurants and cafes, we controlled our children such that their behavior did not negatively impact those around us, and we displayed good manners and had a sense of decorum in our appearance, actions and behavior.
When-I-Was-A-Kid-Alert: When I was a kid, my mother would constantly tell us to watch our manners. We understood, inherently, that acting out in a grocery store would not only result in a date with the soup ladle, but even worse it would bring public embarrassment and shame…because back then it was no-holds-barred. If we disturbed another shopper, they would call us out – guaranteed. It would not be unusual for the Store Manager at Brockleman’s to get up in our faces and yell “HEY! Stop running NOW!” and it would literally scare us straight. It was a two-step process: verbal abuse from the offended party in a very public and humiliating manner, then the receiving end of one of my mother’s ‘looks’ which would soon be followed by a nasty reprimand (and that darn soup ladle). It’s important to note also that the guy wasn’t blaming my mother – the guy was looking straight at me (well, mostly it was my brother who then blamed me). Gulp. Mommy couldn’t protect me – I had to OWN my behavior. Those five seconds after being publicly humiliated are some of the longest in any child’s life. You feel your face burning as the color splotches your cheeks. People are looking. You want the floor to open up and swallow you right there. That feeling was burned into your psyche, and you never wanted to feel it again. If you had any conscience whatsoever (and some of us didn’t, hence the invention of juvie), it would be a cold day in you-know-where before you’d pull that nonsense again.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed blatantly rude behavior. It’s as though these people don’t recognize the impact they’re having on the environment around them. Nowadays we ignore it because we don’t feel empowered to speak up – especially with other peoples’ children. How is that a good thing? Let it go by too much in childhood and they’ll grow up to be the incorrigible adults that we all have to deal with in the aisles of the grocery store, driving on the roads and milling about at our kids’ schools (although I secretly thank you, ridiculous people, because you are giving me SO much material!!).
We are a giving society. No country is more generous with its support during times of need. We have telethons to raise money for Haiti and Hurricane Katrina victims, and most of us have donated a buck or two to a local charity. How about extending that goodwill to our day-to-day habits and acting charitably toward others in all situations? How about a gut-check of the space we (and our families) are occupying? I’m not talking physical space; I’m talking environment. Are your kids unruly and wild in restaurants and stores? Are you just fine with them darting in and out of the aisles at Target? OK with them touching all the sugar packets at the table (that someone else will then use) with their grubby hands? When your kids order at a restaurant, do they make eye contact with the waitress and say please/thank you? This is the threshold – the least we should need. How many of us are letting the importance of manners slip into the bygone era of our parents? How many of us think a firm handshake is old-fashioned? I’m sorry to tell you this, but your kids’ behavior isn’t cute. It’s aggravating and all I’m thinking when I see it is what a poor job you’re doing parenting your kid and how badly that child needs my mom’s soup ladle.
My theory is that the low-level humming of bitterness that I feel is felt by lots of us, and it has a root cause to which we haven’t made the connection. We write it off – we figure we’re just getting older and curmudgeonly. I no longer buy this. Instead, our bitterness is probably due to the erosion of manners and courtesy in our daily culture. We are secretly so tired of the lack of respect inherent in today’s me first society, that we may have decided to just 1) go along with it and lower our expectations, or 2) adopt a defense mechanism of grumbling about it. Either one of these choices is less than ideal, but what else is there? A chain email demanding a manners movement? Didn’t work so well for the guys that wanted a gas boycott this past summer (and that was specific and action-oriented – $4.35 a gallon??? I drive an SUV!). How about a bumper sticker with a clever phrase? Remember the “Practice Random Acts of Kindness” phase? That lasted about a month – with everyone repeating it altruistically – but wasn’t exactly put into practice. The fact is, our selfish and self-centered behavior is ingrained in us. It’s commonplace and accepted.
I for one have decided to embrace the bitterness (#2 on my list of how to deal with it). Honestly? It feels good to complain – somehow I can ‘one-up’ the offender by calling them out (behind their backs most of the time but occasionally I can’t help myself – something snarky slips out and it’s quite uncomfortable for us both). It also helps to picture these people as cartoon characters. I mean, this cannot be happening for real – right in front of my face. Be it littering, turning without a signal, cutting in line because ‘you’re in a hurry’…this stuff happens every day.
So join me – embrace the bitterness. Let it be our generation’s version of Calgon (take me away!). It helps.