Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A plea for some polite words...

The other night, we went to one of our favorite restaurants (Huanacaxtle cafe) to say "bon voyage" (literally so, twas one of the kid boats going on the "puddle jump", which the sail into the South Pacific is known as) with some friends (Convivia!). We had a large party with about 7 kids, mostly around the age of 5 yrs of age. There was one person smoking at a nearby table, so I decided to ask her to put her cigarette out. Growing up American, gives me the chutzpah to ask, while growing up with a Mexican mom (who's culture emphasizes graciousness and politeness), informed my way of asking.

"Could you please put out your cigarette? We have people in our party that are sensitive to cigarette smoke."

The reply? "I live in Mexico, so I don't have to." While I absorbed this shocking announcement and tried not to let my mouth fall open at that, she continued, "Can't you just have them sit over there?" She asked pointing to the far side of the restaurant.

Before I could tame my tongue- "Smoke doesn't know how to stay on one side of the room." Recovering myself, "I'm sorry to have bothered you."

And that in a nutshell is why I think America is having so many problems and seems to be a sinking ship. Whatever happened to the way of thinking that it is nice to be nice to each other?

Our problems (yes, I still say "our" despite the fact that I live in another country for months at a time and have dual citizenship) in the U.S. is not caused by gay people wanting the same rights at their straight married friends. Nor is it caused by atheists and agnostics wanting the separation between state and religion to be observed a little bit better. Nor is it caused by liberal bleeding hearts asking for our government to help those unfortunates that cannot seem to catch a break, despite their efforts. Nor is it the conservative hard cases that insist that there needs to be limits on our government. Nor is it because our Christian friends proselytize to us heathens. Our problems stem from our arrogant refusal to be polite anymore to each other, or to other members of the world.

While we cannot "polite" our way out of situations like 9/11, there are so many problems that can be solved by politeness. Am I turning into Ms. Manners, here? Maybe...

The image of the "ugly American" is one we all know. Clueless, dressed inappropriately, loud and demanding, Americans and non-Americans alike can laugh and say "Isn't that a funny cliche'? I'm so glad that's not true of me or anyone I know." And yet... we have all come in contact with someone like the aforementioned smoker, someone who believes that their rights are more important than anyone else's. Look through your memories of the last couple of days. Was there a moment where you politely asked someone for something and they ignored you? Responded rudely? Gestured rudely? Or was it you doing it to someone else?

My thoughts linger on this subject because up in the U.S. I become inured to the impoliteness around me. For the past 4 mos. I've been living in a place where being gracious and polite is valued. The two incidents of rudeness in that period of time have both come from... my compatriots. Both times I was startled by the abrupt and unkind attitudes behind those encounters. Now I could argue that Mexicans have been rude to me by crowding around me in line (they don't seem to have the same sense of personal space that Americans have, but is that being rude or is it being chummy?), or sometimes skipping over me when helping customers (the squeaky-spanish-speaking-wheel-gets-the-grease?) but no one can find excuses for my lovely smoker's rudeness or my next example-

While in yet another one of my favorite eateries (what can I say? I like to eat and all that walking into town has caused me to not gain any weight while eating in town), someone approached my son to tell him something. When he came back to our table, I asked him what she had said. "She asked us to keep our voices down." "Did you tell her that we're deaf?" (here I indicated to my 82 yr old father and myself). "Uh, no." O-K. Not wanting to seem rude as we were A) not leaving right away and B) guaranteed to be speaking LOUDLY again, I thought to go over and explain. To be polite, I might add (and yes I know that that is a sentence fragment but it did catch your eye on "polite", I hope).

"Hi! Did you just ask my son for us to keep our voices down?" I began.

"Actually, I told him that YOUR voice was too loud," came the steady reply with a challenge in her eye.

What? This was supposed to be my attempt to explain that we are NOT rude assholes who disregard a request. All sorts of retorts flashed through my head; clever, bitchy ones, even. I swallowed those and went for polite.

"I have hearing aids (here I pulled my hair back to show them to her) and am severely deaf and I am speaking with my profoundly deaf father." I tried to not say this with any antagonism but with the right amount of patience and nicety. Not lecturing, I reminded myself, not talking down to.

She responded with a sniff and a "Whatever."
Um. Really? Again, bitchy, mean things to say back flitted through my grey matter. Again, nicety won out.

"I'm sorry that I bothered your lunch." said NOT in a sarcastic tone, though it was killing me to do so.

One could argue, "See! What good does all that nicey nicey talk get you? IN either case, what good did your politeness get you?" Aside form this passive-aggressive post on my blog, I guess you could say that I took the high road. (going off on a tangent here- T asked me if the smoker's story was going to be my "new story" to tell everyone. When I asked her what she meant, she said, "you tell stories to get everyone to feel sorry for you!" Now if that isn't a classic example of passive-aggressive behavior on my part, I don't know what is) I didn't take in all that negativity and spew it back, thus increasing it. I maintained my little island of civility (though smaller and smaller it may seem) and not stoop to the rude person's level.

Side-note - bumped into "mean-to-deaf-people" woman at a Mexican train night later, and she apologized profusely explaining that the tensions that we were all feeling in the cruising community over some perceived slights had gotten to her that day. I find her to be a very nice person and I think my polite behavior deflated her anger and made her into a friend.

So now I look at my behavior in context to the surrounding culture. In Mexico, it is not rude to stand close to a complete stranger in line, stare at someone who is foreign looking, it is just curiosity. If you observe the way other people get a salesperson's/waiter's attention and imitate it, you won't get skipped over (much). But what does that say about the U.S., where driving down the road, people fling the bird at each other with abandon? Where smokers respond to a request for them to cease smoking, with a "for christ's sake!" Where people bump into you, then somehow give you stink-eye over it?

Today, just for today, try to emphasize the "please" in your requests. Say "thank you" with a sincere look in the other person's eye. Let someone else have the last piece or let that stranger go in front of you. Knowing that just by that small action, you may have encouraged a little more civility on the planet. You never know. We just might change the world for the better.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Well done. I am an Italian American living over seas and I will not count the time my wife and I would NOT speak any english so as not to let some rather rude english speakers know that some one did speak english (and end up being expected to translate everything for them). You did the right thing and that is what is important to you. They have chosen their self imposed grief, leave them to it and live a life you can be proud of.