There are some who think rudeness is just a part of living in London – it’s a myth beloved of non-Londoners who maintain they love to visit “but could never live there” from the comfort of their four-bedroom house that they bought at a car boot sale for buttons in the 1990s.
Others think it’s a generational thing; we like to blame things on the advance of technology because while we’re fascinated by it, it’s moving way faster than the human psyche can catch up with – we’re being dragged into the future we envisaged for ourselves in old-school sci-fi movies. Necessity is traditionally the mother of invention, but now curiosity, money and entitlement bring about plenty of innovations. Harking back to before we needed instructions to work our phone makes us feel safer and assured that the optimum time for the universe was the same as our own personal golden age, when we were in our prime. Like a middle-class couple moving into a rundown area because of property prices and then railing against the virus of gentrification they brought in underfoot, eventually we reach saturation point, where we want to say “enough, no more” but sadly the world doesn’t want to listen, and it presses on, leaving us bewildered in its wake, scratching our head and trying to work out what Vero actually is. So while we may blame smartphones, fibre optic broadband and Netflix for monosyllabic indifference from the people around us, the truth is there have always been wankers, ingrates, miseries, arseholes, dickheads, and people who cut you dead for no reason other than they can, and have the inclination.
And yet…Even though we know all this, it cuts deep when someone is rude to us unprovoked. Shop assistants who don’t acknowledge your presence, someone on the train refusing to move their bag so you have to stand, an expensive-smelling man who barges past you on the street; the art of being rude knows no class divide. They’re all around us. You’d think we’d be used to it, wouldn’t you? We must encounter people paying us dust several times a day, and yet somehow it still stings. We remember it, recount the story to (bored) colleagues and friends. “And you won’t believe what he did next,” you will say, and your audience will act shocked – indeed this shock is likely to be genuine – despite the fact this has probably happened to them a few times too.
If you’re a fairly regular person – I hesitate to say “normal”, which is pretty much redundant now; it’s like eating something and saying it was “fine” – you’ll go about your business being relatively kind. You won’t, I imagine, cause scenes unnecessarily or go out of your way to be rude to anyone, and when someone is impolite to you, you’re unlikely to react equally rudely– standing up for yourself and winning a slanging match is a Hollywood invention and only really works if you’re a Big Brother contestant. As the slights against you pile up, and your niceness continues, you can start to feel puzzled. You will question whether your way is the right way. The rude people seem to get what they want, arrive where they’re going faster, and cheaper. In some cases, they’re getting rewarded for it. I read a story the other day about a man travelling on United Airlines who complained to a fellow passenger because she had her feet up on the folding table and was putting him off his dinner. Rather than make a scene, he asked her to remove them. But he had misjudged the scenario: she was one of them. The rude ones. The ones who believe they’re lead artists and the rest of the world mere extras. She told him to do one and called over a flight attendant to say the man was interrupting her peace and quiet. The attendant tried to reason with THE MAN (he was black, by the way, so there it’s extremely likely racism was at play here because hello welcome to 2018) and suggested the woman might move her feet a little farther away (they are sitting in Economy on a glorified bus). When the woman complained about this inconvenience, the flight attendant offered her a $1,000 payment (to be put toward a flight I assume) as compensation. One. Thousand. Dollars. The man who originated the initial, perfectly reasonable complaint got nothing, except, I guess, a raging fire of pain of anger from thumb to thorax.
A couple of years ago I was sitting in a cafe, working. It had been quiet when I arrived and I was seated by the waiter in a booth. I ordered breakfast, ate and was cracking on with my coruscating copy when I felt a presence hovering. It was an embarrassed looking waiter with a woman. She was posher than me, and had two equally well-heeled friends with her. I de-headphoned with a smile and asked what they wanted. The answer was simple: my seat.
“You’re taking up quite a lot of space, and there are three of us,” she barked. I glanced round at the cafe, acres and acres of regular tables for four visible for miles – right up to the horizon. She guessed where I was going with this look, so explained her case. “We want to sit opposite one another, you see ,” she said, “If we sit at the other tables one of us will have to stare into thin air.” She didn’t smile, she didn’t say please, she didn’t even asked if I minded, she just waited for me to budge.
I was so angry I could feel my blood turn to lava but I didn’t want to be that person – I didn’t want to be her – but just as I was on the verge of giving up my seat, I found some zen in a far corner of my mind and replied, “Well, I’m happy here, I’m afraid,” – I waved at my laptop and demolished breakfast plate replete with egg shells and smears of butter – “so you’ll have to muddle through”. Reader, she walked away, muttering “typical” and personal insults under her breath.
So I began to doubt myself. Although I’m known to be brusque on occasion, I am not rude – I’ve always believed in politeness, doing the “right thing” and being courteous and sympathetic. They say good manners cost nothing, but it isn’t true. When they’re not returned, the price feels high; it’s emotionally draining, and you start to think your feelings don’t matter a jot. Should you join them? Should you abandon your watery smiles and simpering plaudits? Never hold the door, barge through, roll your eyes? Will this get you where you need to be?
“But I’m always so polite,” you think to yourself, “surely there should be something in it for me, that should be recognised”. You would be wrong here, however. There are no rosettes or trophies for behaving as you should. Being a good person shouldn’t elicit a prize, for to do that would be to admit that the other way – their way – is the norm, to be expected. It encourages them. The only people who should get rewarded for good behaviour are prisoners.
Do not lose heart, don’t give up, don’t be rude. You never know who your good manners will reach. The elderly woman who hasn’t talked to a soul all day and really needs a seat, or the depressed guy who just wants to make it to the end of the next coffee and he’ll be all right. That “please take my seat”, that “you’re welcome”, the moving out of the way, the letting them on the train first, the “no problem” – that is your prize. It is the currency of goodwill.
Plus, we live in a lonely world – there is every chance you will make someone’s day.