Friday, November 30, 2007

What Happens At Hello ....

from Jacqueline

I have discovered that, sometimes, in this blogging business, when Friday comes around, I just have to take another swipe at a subject I’ve touched upon before. Sometimes it takes more than touching upon the subject to get it out of my system. Sometimes I have to clobber it. And when a bit of clobbering is in order, you can be sure that someone’s rattled my cage.

Last week three things happened to give me pause to consider – again – what sort of people we’re all becoming. These were not big events, in the grand scheme of things. No, they were small, like a mosquito in the bedroom when you’re trying to get to sleep. Mosquitos get bigger and bigger the more you think about them, because the more you think about that tiny insect, the more you hear the thing.

Let’s start with the first event.

We – hubby and me – are fortunate to be able to divide our time between southern and northern California, and last week we were at our house “up north.” The street can sometimes be a bit busy in the mornings, when the mini-van-driving moms use it as a racetrack to see how late they can leave the house and then whizz to the school, which is not far from our home. Other than that it’s quiet. And most of the drivers realize that those of us who live there have to back out of our driveways slowly and with care, and we do a lot of looking – you never know what might come around the corner. So, for the most part, they stop and wait for you to complete your manoevre. But there’s always one, isn’t there? Or two or three. Never mind that there are signs everywhere warning of kids playing, etc., no, there’s always a bozo who couldn’t give a flying you-know-what. That’s the guy in a Toyota Matrix who raced up the street at about 50mph in a 25mph zone and skidded around me even though he had time to stop. He just missed a woman pushing a stroller down the street. That’s community for you.

Then to the next event that tickled me into this week’s post. Last Sunday was just lovely – a bit of an autumnal nip in the air, but bright and sunny – perfect for a hike around the lake. So, off I went up to Bon Tempe lake, which is part of the Mt. Tamalpais watershed, in Marin County. There were a few runners and hikers around, most of whom were quiet, because they know that sound carries around that lake. I was having a very serene, enjoyable hike, stopping to watch a blue heron reflected in the still water, which was like a mill pond in the morning. Then, out of the blue I heard a voice shouting, and another voice in reply.

“She gets to go to the f*****g Ontario office.”
“What the F**k.”
“F**k, yeah.”

And the coversation, between three runners (two men, one woman) went on along these lines for the ten minutes it took them to reach me on the narrow path. I stepped aside. They ran past. No “thank you.” No nothing. They just resumed their “conversation.”

“You’re welcome!” I shouted after them.
A fisherman nearby laughed, having observed the entire scene.

The third thing that happened – before I thought that maybe I should just stay home – took place in a store. I was in conversation with the assistant about an item I was about to purchase. A woman suddenly butted in, without (as they say) so much as a “by your leave” and shouted at the assistant while brandishing a black sweater, “Where’s this in red?” The evil part of me wanted to say, “Under your nose in about two seconds, lady,” but I didn’t. Instead I said, smiling, “I am sure the young lady would be delighted to help you as soon as she’s finished answering my question – and I’ll just be another couple of seconds, if you can wait.”

So, before you think I’m an old curmudgeon, a bit of an Andy Rooney, I use these three examples to make a point. Common courtesy costs nothing. And it may seem dispensible, especially in our fast paced lives, when we will probably not see certain people again, but it isn’t. Common courtesy is a fundamental building block to that illusive thing so many people are seeking: Community.

You hear a lot about community these days. People searching for it. Joining clubs, to see if they can find it there. Setting up a farmer’s market, in the hope that if they come it will be among the fresh basil or broccoli. You can have bake sales, book groups, you can do a lot of things, but if you can’t think about how you interact with others individually and collectively on a daily basis, you might as well forget it.

When I was a kid, I grew up in a warm, thriving community. Only no one used that word. We didn’t know we had community. It was transparent. But here’s what we knew:

You greeted those you knew if you saw them on the street. If you had time, you stopped to talk.

You made eye contact with people when you crossed their path, and you acknowledged them – if you were about to bump into them going in and out of shops, for example.

If someone pulled over on a narrow road to let you drive through, or stopped to let you merge out into traffic, you pressed your hand to your windshield or you waved to acknowledge the gesture – and they did the same. Oh, yes, and if you could, you stopped your car to allow another person out into traffic. And you smiled, even on a bad day.

And if you just had to interrupt a shop assistant while s/he was helping another customer, you said, “Excuse me.”

Of course you said “Please” and “Thank you” where appropriate, and you didn’t show yourself up by using bad language in public – it doesn’t roll off everyone’s back and to show a bit of restraint demonstrates respect for others.

Ah, yes, respect.

So you see, we can have all the community-building initiatives we like, but if we can’t respectfully be aware of our environment, if we can’t engage in the common courtesies of life, we might as well forget it.

Please. Thank you. Hello. How are you? (remembering that this particular question suggests that we stop and listen to the response). Excuse me .

If we start with those, our actions will follow. Not that any of our blog readers need to be reminded of such things, but thank you for bearing with me while I got that little diatribe off my chest. Oh - and thank you to the people who don't scream obscenities while at the lake, and the drivers who stop to allow me out of my driveway. Nice to have you in the 'hood.


  1. You need to move to North Carolina, darlin', at least the parts that haven't been overrun by transplants from New Jersey and Ohio. Courtesy is still the norm here.

  2. I couldn't agree more. Common courtesy is becoming a rare treasure these days, which makes me appreciate good manners that much more when I stumble across them.

  3. I'd blame the "younger generation" but then I'd feel old and that would make me really grumpy. The problem is when you're bombarded with rude behavior, you have the tendency to become rude yourself.

    You're our beacon of niceness, Our J. Stay strong!

  4. I'm with you Jackie....common courtesy, like common sense, seems to be uncommon. No matter where you go there is and has always been, self centered discourteous people.

    Sometimes I find it amusing: A friend and I are dining at a sushi bar. This group of 3 grown men sits in the table next to us. Before you know it, all I'm hearing, in loud voices, was a conversation not merely peppered with F this or that F ing something another, the majority of the words of the conversation was vulgar. These guys literally said the F word over 40 times in under 5 minutes......that's when we quit counting. Obviously THEY didn't see any problem, they enjoyed thier hour lunch.

    Thanks for your post; as always, you give us something to chew on and contemplate.


  5. Thank you for your lovely post. Please write many more....

  6. I read something very interesting a long ago about "moments of truth"-- that every day we have opportunities to turn transactions into transformations-- so that when you make the choice to let someone merge into traffic, or you slow down so the old lady can get across the crosswalk despite the guy behind you laying on the horn, or when you see the frazzled mom in the grocery store and instead of snarling at her to control her monstrous urchin you take the time to smile and offer a little sympathy you can tranform that moment into something that makes at least 2 people feel better instead of worse.

    I'm not sure how I could tranform the moment of truth I had recently, returning via the Beltway in post-Thanksgiving traffic, in the 3rd left side lane of 5 lanes approaching a split, going over 55 in close- to- bumper-to bumper traffic, when the huge honkin' SUV behind me flashed his brights in my rear view mirror so I could get out of his way. I confess, I flipped him off. I wanted to slam on my brakes too, but don't currently have a death wish. That's when I wish for carpet bombing traffic enforcement with hefty tickets. And for a Death Ray Gun that will cause either instant flat tire or engine failure for all aggressive driving pigs. Sigh. The universal entitlement & narcissism my family calls "Table For One" -- pretty rampant these days!

  7. Dusty's right. About ten years ago I watched a young women help an old lady who was trying to reach across the big bench seat of her Buick to a curbside mailbox.

    After the woman drove away, I said to the young woman, "That was really nice of you. You'd never see that kind of thing in Detroit."

    She smiled and said, "That's why we live here, isn't it?"

    Some of that's a bit tarnished today, as more and more people move in and we get a little more crowded, a little more cranky.

    I once wrote a short story with the protagonist using Sir and Ma'am. A woman in a writers group dismissed it as unreal. "No one talks like that today," she said.

    I told her I did. And I do.

    If that makes me an anachronism, then so be it.

  8. I think I touched a nerve or two! I've just arrived home following a three hour drive in the most horrible weather and traffic I have seen in a long time - and I've also seen a fair bit of the driver behavior illustrated in the comments here.

    The most we can do is to have respect for ourselves and others in our interactions, turn the "transactions into transformations" (thank you mbh) and remember that we can only control how we ourselves act and react in any situation. I happen to enjoy those common courtesies, the manners that connect us to others even on the busiest of days, and if just one person responds in kind, well, that's just fine. The others are still learning - I hope.

  9. Hmm. The sad bit is that all of us answering here have similar stories to tell (mine, tonight picking up Chinese takeaway here in SoCal).

    Manners are indeed going by the wayside, it would seem. But for those who still have them (I selfishly count myself in that column on MOST days), it is a distinct benefit. First, it just makes ME feel better, and second, it's the way I'd prefer to be treated. Recently, whilst in Merstham, England (just south of London), visiting some friends, I grabbed a Ginger Beer and a Kit Kat from a newsvendor near the tran station, and the news agent used words like "please" and "thank you for your custom, sir". Sigh - my beard IS turning grey. But perhaps that wasn't it at all...

    Jackie, take them as they come, and always smile - they'll probably think you're up to something!

    Cheers, all! John

  10. Thanks, John, for your comment - and I'll take your advice. By the way, I used to live in Merstham. How about that for a coincidence.

  11. Hi Jacqueline,

    If you think it's bad in California, you obviously haven't spent much time recently here in the Old Country!

    Anyone who cares about courtesy is currently considering emigration.


  12. Well, I have to say I agree with you - I'm back in the UK about four times a year to see my parents. They live down a winding country lane (they have to be really careful backing out of their drive). Time was that the only people who used that lane were the locals, however, with the advent of "sat nav" it's become a short cut for people who think racing round corners is a bit of a lark - absolutely no respect for the people and animals in the area.

  13. I loved this post, because I love good manners and adore to pieces when humans are decent and polite to each other. I do humbly offer a reply at my own blog.