Friday, September 23, 2011

What's the Magic Word?

During rush hour yesterday, I was standing in line to put my fare card into the slot in order to get through the turnstile and board the train. Some woman walked past the line and stepped in front of all the people standing there in order to put her card in the slot. She caught the incoming train. I didn't. If she hadn't cut in front of me, I would have. Instead, I ended up waiting for a train that was several minutes late and ended up on a very crowded train with nothing to hold onto. As a result, every time the train jerked forward I practically landed face-first at someone's feet or accidentally threw my arms around another person's waist. (Doing that gives some people the wrong idea, which really isn't a good way to start the morning.)

Side note: What is it about a crowded train that makes people waiting on the platform want to make it even more crowded? Do they think that shoving their way inside and yelling at people to move back will magically create more space? Or do they like causing everyone else to get their faces smushed against other people's shoulders and backpacks?

Recently, a woman nearly ran me over with her car as I was trying to cross the street (I had the right of way). She didn't apologize, look at me, or slow down.

I was walking on the sidewalk and a guy walking in the opposite direction bumped into me, nearly knocking me into the street. His girlfriend called out, "Don't fall!" and they both laughed.

I told a fellow instructor that I used to work with how hard it was to find decent-paying adjunct jobs in the city. She then proceeded to tell me how one school that we had both taught at had offered her an extra class and was going to pay her significantly more than they had paid me.

Now that school's starting up again, I've been getting e-mails from students that ask questions like, "Do I really need to buy the books for class? How much reading are we going to do in a literature class?" and "I think I'm going to be missing at least three weeks of class. That's not going to hurt my grade, is it?" and "Can you tell me what all the assignments are now and how to do them, so that I can work ahead?" and "You're not going to make us show up on time every day, right? Because I have other things to do."

I've answered all the e-mails promptly, and the number of thank yous I've received aren't equal to half the number of e-mails, requests for appointments, and requests for recommendation letters that I've received.

I was raised to always say stuff like please, thank you, excuse me, and I'm sorry. One of the nuns at my Catholic grade school told us it was important to do at least one good deed a day, and I believed her. (On the other hand, I also used to believe the nuns when they said that thunder meant the angels were bowling.) So I do things like leave tips for baristas, open doors for people, and give up my seat on the train to others who need it more. I was also taught to give thank you gifts and cards to people who helped me, like the professors who wrote my recommendation letters, my hairstylist who made my hair stop looking like I'd stuck my finger in an electrical outlet, and the building engineers who always repaired broken things in my apartment almost as soon as I asked them to.

I don't expect cards or gifts when I help other people.

But it does bother me when people forget their manners, not just with me but with other people. I can't help wanting to say something (though sometimes I lack the courage to actually speak up) if I see a customer being rude to a cashier, or if I see a bunch of drivers honking their horns at people in wheelchairs crossing the street.

On the other hand, when I do see people who go out of their way to be kind and courteous, it always makes me feel better. This morning I saw a young woman give up her seat on the train so that an elderly couple could sit together. Recently I saw another woman giving food she'd bought at a restaurant to a homeless person. And occasionally, when I cross the street and a car brakes in front of me just in time, the driver will hold up his or her hand in order to apologize. People like that make me think that there are still good, considerate people out there. And that gives me hope.

What do you think? Do you think that manners and other rules for behavior are outdated? Or does it bother you when people disobey or disregard those rules?


  1. Move to the Mid. East. People are extremely polite here. Except about staring. Men will stare the shit out of you. In all other regards, supremely nice and polite.

  2. TOTALLY bugs me. My husband gives me a hard time because I'm constantly apologizing for things, even if I didn't do them. On the one hand, I probably do need to grow a backbone. On the other hand, I can't help feeling like someone should be cleaning up the mess that others have made. If you can help one person smile each day, doesn't that make it a good day?

  3. Hi mmarinaa,
    The staring would make me uncomfortable. People tend to not look each other in the eye in Chicago, so when it does happen here that makes it awkward.

    Hi Anna,
    Making someone smile would definitely make it a good day. More than one of my coworkers have commented on the fact that I apologize a lot; I try not to but I can't help it.

  4. Manners are definitely culture and location specific. I grew up a Masshole outside of Boston, and there was pretty much no common courtesy. It's kind of a townie vibe and there was a lot of tourist hate, too.

    I noticed similar behavior in LA and I think it's because there's less human interaction there... It's easy to hide behind your steering wheel. You're pretty anonymous.

    NYC's a mix. If you don't give up your subway seat for a pregnant/old/disabled person people look at you like you're a monster. Same for if you try to get on the train before others get off. Yet somehow it is city mandated to plow through pedestrian traffic with a forward-leaning shoulder and give dirty looks to everyone walking at a disparate pace.

  5. Hi Anna,
    In Chicago, whenever people try to get on the train before others get off, there's always someone who will call them on it.

    I wish that pedestrians had their own horns that we could use to honk at impatient drivers. I also wish I had superhuman powers that would enable me to make drivers stop so that pedestrians like me could cross the street safely.

  6. I was raised to be polite and courteous. People like that drive me crazy too. The more crowded a place, the pushier people are. It's the anonymity.

    I hope we're not a dying breed. My kids have been raised the same way, so it means it will be even worse for them.