I have been reading a book this evening called Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss. She, the author of the grammarian handbook, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, has written a quick read on the loss of manners and rise of rudeness in our society. It found it an interesting read. It is the curse of every generation to watch the decline of civilized behavior in every generation that follows. Those courtesies and values that our generation held dear are dismantled, ignored, and sometimes actively pissed on by those ungrateful young people. We blame their parents, and not under our breath either, for their lack of good breeding. But before I get on the old fogey bandwagon, I would like to say that parents don't have an easy job. They sacrifice everything to keep their children from being run over by cars, falling down stairs, and sticking metal objects in light sockets. And just when the parent survives this stage of child development, the child enters the first of it's rebellious stages: the terrible twos. The child, now up on two feet and quick as a spider, wants nothing to do with the parent and wants to explore everything in sight...especially those things the parent finds objectionable. This is the moment at which teaching manners begins.
I think parents tell children to be quiet so often because they are hoping (rather naively) that children will learn the rules of social engagement by watching the parent navigate social interactions. They are attempting to lead by example. It is difficult for a parent to steer the boat when Junior is tugging at a skirt, demanding attention, running amock, removing his clothing, screaming at the top of his lungs, and/or lying on the floor. But if you think about a parent chastising a child for poor behavior in public, it is their way of reinforcing proper etiquette. It's just like training a dog. You can't wait until you get home or the teachable moment has passed.
In my twenties, I firmly believed that people with children should just keep those little urchins away from polite society. Of course, I was polite society. I used to say there should be a "no children" section in restaurants just like their were "no smoking" sections. To this day, I find myself bristling when I sit down at a restaurant, order my food, and then they seat a family with a child near me. When a child cries, it's like someone is piercing my brain with a needle. When that family is seated next to me and here comes a waiter with a booster chair, I feel that sudden selfish question settling over me like an old friend: "Why me?" But a kid won't learn how to behave in public if they aren't allowed in public. I guess I'm just going to have to suck it up and take one for the team.
I can't tell you how many parents I gave the stink eye for daring to have a misbehaving child anywhere near me. Or how mind-bendingly rude I found people who blew their nose in the middle of a restaurant where people were trying to eat. And don't even get me started on drivers. I honestly believe that in this day and age, the only circumstances under which drivers follow the rules of the road are when a police car has been spotted. We are as impatient with traffic as we are with a line at the mall. We live in a society of constant exasperation with one another. We have no sense of courtesy. No tolerance. We are a culture that pulls into oncoming traffic and gets incensed at getting flipped off. I'm surprised any of us are alive.
So in my opinion, passing along manners and teaching children how to be sufferable in public is the main job of a parent. It doesn't always take. I've seen a 20-something pull a car decoration off someone's vehicle because he disagreed with the sentiment it represented. I listened as a 20-something chastised an older woman, "Watch where you're going" when she bumped into him in a hallway. We are convinced of our ultimate and unbending rights not to be impacted by anyone else, ever. We shouldn't have to listen to others' phone conversations. We shouldn't have to wait in line. We shouldn't have to stand on the bus. We shouldn't have to deal with smoke, offensive smells, loud noises, farts, burps, opposing opinons, natural disasters, shortages, high prices, and crying babies. We have become a society of self-aggrandizing intolerants. I admit it. At various times in my life, I've been one of them.
We are acutely sensitive to slights and yet we fail to offer the same level of respect to others that we demand for ourselves.
However, there comes a time in your life when your own behavior begins to follow the Golden Rule. This is the point at which you become an old fogey. For some people this happens early. For others, it comes unbelievably late. We hope that children learn this in their teens. I've seen 50-year-old professionals with no more self-control than a two-year-old.
But I want to get back to my title statement, which perhaps in light of my old fogey rant here might seem incongruent with my perspective. I do think there are conditions under which rudeness is not only acceptable, it may actually be beneficial.
When I was young, I was excrutiatingly shy. I would rather have died than do something wrong in public. I walked through my early life trying to attract as little attention as possible. Now for a woman in this society, this is no way to be. I hoped to enter a primarily male field and was losing out on job opportunities because I was seen as "too girly". And then one day, I just sort of got it. I had to explore my masculine side. Boys are taught early that rebelliousness is not only acceptable, it is part of being a man. They spit. They pick at their privates. They tell off-color jokes. They insult one another. And your mother. Their penalty for such behavior? Disapproving looks from grandmothers and under-the-breath snickers from fathers. The lesson being taught isn't lost on those boys. Misbehaving is expected now and again...just don't overdo it. For girls, there's a different standard. Spitting isn't even on the radar of girls. I don't think any girl anywhere would have any idea why you might need to pick at your privates. We rightly understand that off-color jokes aren't really funny. Shock value isn't funny. And insults are hurtful. Misbehaving is not tolerated. Behaving is rewarded.
As a result, girls are at a distinct disadvantage in early adulthood. Parents have armed their girls for a knife fight, but armed their boys with land-to-air missles. For a woman to succeed in this society, she has to be able to compete with men and more than likely will need to toughen up. She had better learn that strict adherence to the rules is going to land her exactly beneath a glass ceiling. Women have to learn to stand up for themselves, to defend themselves, to get a little aggressive now and again, and sometimes grind those little twerps into the asphalt. And this is why I think that a healthy dose of competition and little bit of social disobedience should not only be tolerated, but sometimes actively promoted. I'm not talking about entering the world of bullying. I'm talking about experimenting with assertiveness. Sometimes they are bound to go too far. Sometimes they are likely to come up short. But without actually practicing, they can't get better at it.
There is a famous quote I remember from my youth that seems applicable here. "One of the worst thing that can happen is for a man is to win a lot of money on a horse at a young age." Speaking from my own experience, I have seen that even when girls experiement with disobedience, early success is often an unfortuante thing.
Lots of studies have looked at why people gamble or why we think that our lucky socks influence our favorite sports team's performance, and it has a great deal to do with our human tendency to find patterns where none exist. We believe our own behavior can influence random events. Although boys are also prone to this tendency, when it comes to manipulating the world, boys are well aware that there are lots of tools in the toolbox and that you don't use a screwdriver when a needle-nose plier is required. Women, lacking much experience in the garage, have a tendency to pick up the hammer, give it couple of swings, and ignore all the other tools. If they were trying to drive a nail, great! It worked. Problem is, the next time they need to drive a screw, they grab the hammer and hammer away and wonder why they aren't getting anywhere. Instead of picking up a different tool, they keep hammering. And hammering. And hammering. They spend the rest of their lives hammering away and wondering why the stupid tool doesn't work half the time.
But if a girl fails with the hammer the first time, she might pick up several other tools before finding the one that works. This is the fortunate girl. If I could impress upon young girls one thing it would be to explore the toolbox. Try out all tools of social interaction. Try out passive aggressive behavior. Try out being a demanding bitch. Get your groove on by flirting your way to getting your way. Try being sweet as pumpkin pie. Try getting up in someone's face. Only by trying out different behaviors will she begin to feel comfortable and only then can she figure out what is going to work for her and under what circumstances. She can learn to dial up and dial back the aggression. She can learn by practicing the best approach to getting ahead. She doesn't get stuck in this "default approach". I think this is how women got the stereotype of being nags. Nagging is the hammer of the toolbox. It is one of the easiest, but least effective and most overused tools.
It's taken me nearly 50 years to learn this lesson. I hope that those of you with daughters will help them learn these lessons earlier.
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