Sunday, December 06, 2009 By Aaron Brown
‘How Rude’ our world really is
By Aaron J. Brown
In the terrible, yet beloved 1990s TV show “Full House,” one of blond child characters belts out a catchphrase in every episode. Sometime between when the cutest, smallest blond child says something adorable and the time that comes later when the touching violin chords accompany an adult saying something serious and sincere, Stephanie Tanner says “How rude.” Ha-ha-ha! You had to be there.
The line operates off a visceral human truth, people are rude, possibly more so now than at any time since people used buckets as toilets, emptying them buckets out second story urban windows before sacking major cities to forcefully convert millions to whatever it was they called a religion. For instance, now store clerks talk on cell phones instead of snarling at customers and denying service based on race. How rude.
On the topic of rudeness I find myself caught between two worlds. As a communication instructor, I teach politeness theory to hundreds of people every year. At the same time, insofar as politeness is concerned, I rather feel I was raised by wolves. We had rules about polite behavior growing up, but the rules were often day-to-day, rather than focused on the true meaning of politeness – consideration of another person’s feelings before you do or say something. I feel guilty now about a lot of the people I never thanked or apologized to for things I was completely unaware of at the time.
But that’s not to say that I’m 100 percent polite today. Indeed, each day I spew unwittingly rude comments. Sometimes I find myself walking down the halls at work seeing friendly people whose names I know, and with whom I could engage in wonderful conversation, and instead I dart into my office, eat my “sammich,” do some work and then escape like a refugee to my next class or meeting. How rude.
In class, I teach a concept called Wolfzen’s Bulge Model of Politeness from Joseph Devito’s “Interpersonal Messages.” The theory, depicted as a line graph with the characteristic “bulge” in the center, shows how we are most polite to the people with whom we share the most middling amount of intimacy. Most people are polite to prospective lovers, possible friends, mysterious colleagues and the people who touch our food right before we eat it. But for actual lovers and friends, the co-workers we’ve known the longest and the cook who delivered one bad meal after 20 good ones, we’ll let them have it. The same is true of strangers we expect to never see again. Who cares, right?
One time I was dashing through a busy mall. I was late to meet someone and it was one of those sidewalk sales with slow people milling around junk, like gypsies. Slow gypsies. Anyway, I bump this lady, see. And she’s got coffee, see. And, so, she spills this coffee all over her hands. I suppose it would have been hot. Normally, even the impolite teenage me, would have, indeed should have apologized and inquired as to her well being. That’s exactly what I was about to do, I swear. But as we turned to face each other, she scrunches up her face and sneers “Well, excuuuuuuuse you.” I paused, feeling the strong pull between my continued hurrying and the desire to do the right thing. I looked into her eyes, thought, and finally said, “meh,” waiving my hands at her dismissively as I rushed to my rendezvous.
So, listen. It’s been a lot of years but, sorry lady. I’m sorry I spilled coffee on you even though you were kind of a jerk. Your being a jerk and me spilling coffee on you were separate matters and for my part in this, I’m sorry that I …. Yeah, listen, I’ve got stuff to do.
Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Read more at his blog MinnesotaBrown.com or in his recent book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range,” which recently won the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. He’ll be signing books this Thursday, Dec. 10 at Howard Street Booksellers in Hibbing from 5 to 7 p.m.