The party was crowded, but without many familiar faces. So when a young woman walked up and interrupted a conversation I was having with one of the few people there that I knew, it made me feel particularly excluded. Not only did she not excuse herself, she didn't even make eye contact with me. I was mortified and disgusted.
Walking away would have been dignified. But maybe because I was both annoyed and old enough to be her father, I felt compelled to say something.
But is it ever worth speaking up to the rude who cut lines, yell into phones and let their children run wild? Or is it too likely to cause a confrontation?
John Dobkin, a confident New Yorker I know who sits on many boards and at many prominent dinner tables, pipes up regularly. A friend blew off his luncheon at the last minute by e-mail. He let her have it. Fellow board members sending text messages while at meetings? He asked them to desist. "As long as I feel people can be educated," he said, "I'll say something."
It's no wonder he's a happy man. A study at the University of Zurich last year found that the dorsal striatum region of the brain is activated when people tell others off for wrongdoings, and that it actually stimulates happiness.
Of course everyone knows that you never criticize children who aren't your own. Etiquette arbiters also caution against criticizing the poorly behaved in front of others, because it embarrasses or incites them. Miss Manners points to the escalation (in our rage-prone time) of counterrudeness, which can end in violence. Her own arsenal for letting people know they are out of line consists of withering looks, an upturned nose and a cool tone. Civilized, but unsatisfying.
So if you're not so confident, yet want to take the bull (or bully) by the horns and address rudeness on the spot, how do you proceed without provoking tension or a scene? "You have to encourage compassion by telling your story," said Laurie Puhn, the author of "Instant Persuasion: How to Change Your Words to Change Your Life," "and then laying out what you want." Ms. Puhn, who is a consultant on effective communicating, is always thinking about ways to whack knuckles painlessly.
She advises passengers seated on flights near loud talkers to say quietly, "It sounds like you're having fun and that you have very interesting lives, but you know, I've had a rough day, and I'm really tired, so if you wouldn't mind keeping it down, I'd really appreciate it." When she sees a subway rider leave an empty soda bottle, she says, "Excuse me, I think you forgot something." It always works, she says, and without repercussions. "The important thing," Ms. Puhn said, "is to be positive and give the rude person a way to save face." That might not be as much fun as issuing the perfect put-down. But it might keep things from getting ugly.
With the young woman who had so rudely interrupted my conversation, Ms. Puhn suggested extending a hand and cheerfully saying, "I'm sorry, I don't think you took a moment to introduce yourself to me."
I wasn't that straightforward. But when I took a deep breath and told the young woman that she looked like "the kind of person who was brought up with manners" and that I probably didn't need to point out how excluded she made me feel, she stood still. Then she apologized and said that, in fact, she had been raised to know better and had even been a debutante in Florida. Why she had behaved so badly is anyone's guess. It might have been the booze, the heat or maybe that I didn't look like anyone she wanted to meet. Who knows? All I know is that I felt immensely satisfied the rest of the night.
The next time you see rudeness, think about whether it's worth flagging. If it is, proceed with the caution of an actor, therapist and plastic surgeon. You might annoy the offender. But you might have an effect. Call it self-serving civility.
Or call it making America a better place, one rude person at a time.
Sunday, July 31, 2005
How many times has this happened to you here?