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Friday, July 27, 2012

Dear Abby: Why Are There So Many Jerks?

Close your eyes.

Actually, DON'T!  Don't close your eyes!  How will you read this with your eyes closed?  Silly!

Just picture this with me:

It's mid-afternoon slump time.  You're at Starbucks to order an alcohol-free/chocolate-free pick-me-up.  There's a line of people in front of you.  Some are carrying shopping bags, some are carrying babies, some are carrying smart phones.  Like the guy in front of you.  He's carrying a smart phone and is using that smart device to let everyone else in the store know how smart he is by saying lots of smart-sounding words and giving lots of smart-sounding instructions to whatever poor soul is on the other end of the line.  The smart-phone talker is wearing a smart suit with smart glasses and has his hair smartly parted just-so.  It's finally his turn to order whatever beverage is going to stimulate his smart thinking. He approaches the counter, looks at the woman ready to take his order like his dairy-versus-soy preference is the most interesting thing she is about to ever hear, and barely trains his lips away from the smart receiver he's been barking into.

"Triple shot.  Latte.  Venti.  Froth, not foam.  180 degrees.  3/4 package of Splenda."

Then he throws his Starbucks gold card at the barista and redirects his smart attention to his smart phone and his smart monologue on the urgency of whether the mid-afternoon or early evening charter flight to Martha's Vineyard is the better option.  He saunters over to the pick-up station, where he rolls his eyes in exasperation every time a drink is presented for consumption, and that drink is not his drink.

You approach the counter, hoist yourself up onto it, and give the barista a hug.  You buy her a petite vanilla bean scone.  And you laugh with her about the cinnamon that Mr. Smart Man brushed up against and now has stained just above his belt line.

This is not a meditation exercise on fashion, stain removal, or over-use of the word "smart."  This is a story about the absence of something.

What's missing from the encounter described above?  Can you identify it?

Manners.  That's what's missing.  From  there and almost everywhere.

The other day I was walking down the hall at work to do something thrilling -- maybe pick something up from the printer -- and I heard an IT guy ordering lunch.  He kept on telling the poor lady at the Chinese restaurant about all his "needs."  How he "needed" some Kung Pao chicken and how he "needed" some beef fried rice and how he "needed" some spring rolls.  I paused in my document retrieval efforts to suggest that all he "needed" was a diet and a scholarship to Little Miss Manners School for Mouthy Minors.

One guy needs his coffee.  Another needs his MSG rations for the day.  A traveler needs her room upgraded, her luggage delivered faster, her trip through the security line free from slow-movers like toddlers.  A driver needs that parking space, that green light, that right of way.

Children are bullied.  Adults are demeaned.  Politics is personal.

I don't consider "manners" to just be the words we use, but the way we treat other people.  And it seems as though the vast majority of us has forgotten the simple manners we were all supposed to learn before those big challenges of learning to cut paper and how to wash our own hands.  Say please.  Then say thank-you.  Be nice.  Accept differences.  Respect yourself.  Respect others.  Throw in a door-hold with a smile every now and then.  Be nice again.  Be nice always. 

Why have manners fallen into such disuse, a reader has asked?

Well, if I had to place blame, I'd divide it between two phenomena:

1.  A zero-sum mentality.  It seems to me that people think life, and every aspect of it, is some big competition.  Unfortunately, that means that people think there are winners and losers in life.  More unfortunately, those same people think that in order to be a winner, they have to trample on all the eventual losers as they blaze their path to victory.  And in this game, if a competitor wins a job or a girl or a spot on a youth soccer team or a place in line, then everyone else is necessarily a loser.  It's win or bust.

How does this translate into poor manners?  Well, if everyone is a foe/enemy, then you are schooled to treat them accordingly.  And you don't extend niceties to potential threats or warmly embrace their differences.  You exploit them, or you exaggerate them, and you probably make fun of them.  You definitely do NOT say "excuse me" as you tackle them to the curb lining your Road to Success.

2.  The technology of instant gratification.  I bet at some point today, you got exasperated because it took too long to refresh your Twitter feed.  I bet when you order something online, if 2-day shipping isn't free, you consider shopping elsewhere.  If you have children, I bet your children know how to use your iPad to summon their favorite Dora/Backyardigans/Elmo video the moment they decide they want to see it.

When we want something, we now think it should arrive before our eyes or in our hands soon after we've formed the underlying desire.  If it is delayed, or arrives not as we conceived it, we feel frustrated, duped, even betrayed. 

But you can't yell at a slow Internet connection and you can't berate a webpage.  Well, you can, but it's not very satisfying.  What is satisfying is finding some poor customer service rep hiding behind a 1-800 number and accosting them with your righteous indignation.  Or you can loudly exhale when the barista hands you a mochaccino instead of the frappuccino you clearly demanded.  Or you can look at the flight attendant with thinly-disguised condescension when she tells you that you'll need to put away Angry Birds during take-off.

We think we know everything and we deserve everything because we are going to win everything.  So listen up, pony up, and then get out of our way.  And no, you do not deserve my time, attention, or consideration.

Fortunately, not everyone plays the game this way.  Some of us realize that life's victories can feel sweeter when we recognize that they can be shared, and multiplied, and repeated.  That kindness and gentleness and compassion are victories in and of themselves.  And that at the end of the day, the size of the deal you closed or the apartment you bought doesn't really matter if your colleagues hope you bleed out to a slow death by paper cuts and no one will ever visit you in that apartment.  Because you are mean.  And you'd probably expect them to empty your trash and thank you for the privilege.

If my daughter doesn't say please when she asks for something, I pretend like I didn't hear the request.  Rules about friends in our house are pretty straightforward, because there's only one: be nice to everyone.  Rules about playing are similarly streamlined: if you can't take turns, you can't play.

Of course, she's not perfect and she forgets even these simple maxims.  When she does, she gets a talking-to and she promises to try to do better next time. 

I honestly don't care if she's good at sports or good at music or good at school.  I have a strong, unwavering desire that she is good at being a person.  Same goes for her brother (as soon as he's developed enough for concepts like good-versus-bad).

Too many people are good at making money or good at getting dressed or good at seeming important, but they're bad at being good.

So, Mr. Man at Starbucks, start small.  You can be a jerk as soon as you get back to your office.  Heck, be a jerk once your feet hit the sidewalk.  But now, while you're ordering your caffeine?  Put down the phone.  Look that woman in the eye.  Speak in a conversational tone.  End your order with a "please."

Thanks so much.


  1. That's a great one , Abby . Your little girl and boy will be great ones too.

  2. Abs, I love this one. Reminds me of the old addage my dad says he got from Poppa: "You don't get to be the tallest tree in the forest by cutting all the other trees down."

  3. "Too many people are good at making money or good at getting dressed or good at seeming important, but they're bad at being good." NIIIIIIIIIIIIICE!

  4. To be fair, yesterday's post (a withering public critique of you husband's mother) was one of the more impolite things you could do. Manners extend beyond the kiosk and they don't apply only to interactions with strangers. I was surprised and discouraged by what I read yesterday. If you want to write everyday, then write everyday, just think hard before hitting publish. You write and think with great clarity. Those skills, combined with a frustrating day, a bad mood, and a "publish" button, can get you into trouble.

    p.s. This was one of your bests.