Growing up in New York City I learned that it is easy to pick a fight with random strangers. In a dispute over a cut in a long line or who should get the lone taxi cab after waiting in the rain, one can be remarkably rude and mean because we will never see these people again. It’s easy to burn lots of bridges in an anonymous city but now that I live in a suburb, I need to watch my interactions when confronted by rude behavior because chances are I will have to see these people again and again.
Do I tell the woman at the gym on the elliptical next to me who is speaking loudly on her cell phone -in a voice that sounds like Fran Drescher in the Nanny- to keep her volume down? Should I point out that there are rules for cell phone use? Do I ask her if she is hearing impaired? If I make a meaningful loud cough, I might swallow some saliva and really have a big cough and then she may tell me to get off the machine because I am too sick to be in the gym. I may then have to tell her that she may be too germaphobic to be in a gym.
If I do find that I see her day after day and it has become awkward, I might apologize to smooth things over with her and tell her that I knew that she had a very good reason to stay on her phone because I could tell that she had had a relapse. After all I could hear the whole conversation even with my headphones on. “Clearly”, I may continue that she “is in some kind of exercise addicts’ 12 step recovery group and was not able to leave her place on her machine to speak in a more private location”. So why does this woman seem to be afraid of me every time I see her now? I gave her good advice on her germphobia, exercise addiction and hearing problem?
Even when there are clear-cut rules- as in my local traffic circle, the gym, the Penn Station restroom, and the NJ transit quiet car- we often are not aware of them and risk violating them. Are these people just selfish? Assholes? Pathetic? From Brooklyn? How many times do I try to put a label on a relatively anonymous person that leaves me with bad taste in my mouth? Have I unwittingly been rude to others?
Perhaps another way to view this might be: When people are being rude to us, they are just so self-absorbed in their own problems and we in return are self-absorbed in ourselves by thinking that their behavior has anything to do with their feelings about us or how we fit into their world.
A psychology study was done at Princeton Seminary School. (I will link to better explanations than mine) revealed that situations may have a bigger impact on some behavior than personality. Seminary students were told that they needed to give a lecture on The Good Samaritan in the next building. Unknown to the students, a disheveled coughing man had been placed between the two buildings. Of those students who had been told to hurry to the next building, only 10 percent stopped to help the ailing man. Of those students who were told to take their time getting to the next building, 60 percent stopped to help the man. The conclusion was that being in a hurry was a predominant factor in whether one person would stop to help another.
I might also add that anxiety might be a factor. I might even conclude that anxious people might be so wrapped up in their own stuff, that they may not be in a position to be particularly caring. Does that mean that people are always that way? Is it possible that many people in the New York Metropolitan area are anxious balls of mess and in a hurry? Wouldn’t it be better to let the rude actions of others glance off our impervious amour of calm? We can now look pityingly at that man that calls us “Stupid Lady” in the parking lot when our efforts to place the cart back in the corral for a second time fail and go colliding into his car. Perhaps we can muse that he is really just nervous about the prospect of a Memorial Day spent with his mother in- law or can I still claim that people who drive BMWs are rude drivers?
Special thanks to edX UQxThink 101 The Science of Everyday Thinking