In 2004, the Associated Press reported that authorities in Beijing, China, were cracking down on bad manners in anticipation of the city's role as host of the 2008 summer Olympics. Beijing residents were taught when to turn off their cell phones, how to line up to board a bus, and the polite way to spit in public. Sure, laugh. But don't you wish your town's Capital Ethical and Cultural Development Office would take such a stand? Instead, your train conductor turns a deaf ear to shouted cell phone conversations, the traffic cop casts a blind eye at cars that barrel through the crosswalk, the grocery store clerk allows the shopper with 17 items to pass unmolested through the ten-items-or-fewer lane.
And so more and more of us end up appointing ourselves manners police, taking it upon ourselves to be the enforcers of community courtesy, to show others how things are supposed to work.
In the course of a typical day, teachable moments abound. The person walking in front of you tosses a Snickers wrapper on the sidewalk; you retrieve it, say, "Excuse me, I think you dropped something," and offer it back with a helpful smile. Someone else lets her dog do its thing in your front yard and fails to clean it up; you hurry after her with a plastic bag and a cheery "I thought you could use this!" You feel justified in doing these things because the other person took the easy way out, which is tantamount to cheating. We hate cheating. Its "me first"-ness dashes the hope that we're all in this together. And it reminds us, in some cases, how much we'd like to be cheating, too.
As manners police, we believe we're acting for the common good; life is better for all of us when we all live by the rules. Except it's trickier than that. Even as we tell ourselves we're taking noble advantage of a teachable moment, we may be acting in the spirit of giving our fellow citizens a good hard spank.
A friend of mine, L., was once the victim of pedestrian rudeness. She was walking through a busy bus station in New York City when another woman veered in front of her, cutting her off. No "Excuse me," no apology. And then the woman did it again. And then, in the process of exiting the station, though L. was right behind her, the woman failed to hold the door.
Was it an accident that L.'s foot subsequently found itself in just the right spot at just the right time to cause the woman to stumble? Or, to paraphrase the question on the speechless woman's face: Did you just—?
L. looked her in the eye and nodded the nod of the smugly righteous: You bet I did.
I know there are people who would say that L. was righting a wrong, or doing her small part to restore the karmic balance of the universe. Yet if you think about it, she was acting on the same impulse—same in kind, different in degree—that moved a Georgia college student to hit two women with her Jeep this summer after the women cut in front of her in line at McDonald's. In the heat of the moment, You were rude all too easily becomes and you will pay; that L. recognizes her slide down this slippery slope may explain why she didn't want her name used in this story.
But at least L. acknowledged to the woman that, yes, she'd tripped her. There was a kind of roguish honor in meeting her eye and owning up to her fancy footwork. It's even possible that the eye contact got to the woman in such a way that she became a more considerate pedestrian thereafter. Certainly the dots were there to be connected: I cut someone off, ergo I was tripped. What happens, though, when the dots aren't there, when manners policing is combined with stealth?
Consider a story from another friend of mine, J. When J. was a little girl, 4 or 5 years old, she and her father went to the grocery store to pick up a few things for J.'s mother. Just as they were about to pull into a parking space, a woman in another car zipped in and took it herself. "That was it for my father," J. says. "We got our cart, got the three things we'd come for, then spent the next hour following this woman through the store. She gets to the last aisle, her cart overflowing with a week's worth of groceries, and then she steps away to look for something and my father takes her cart and hides it in the meat section, behind the swinging doors. Then he stands there watching while the poor thing tries to figure out where the hell her cart could have gone."
This is a case of manners policing gone insane. The offender, if she's even aware of her crime, has no way of relating it to her punishment.
Next: Asking the experts: What Miss Manners and The Ethicist say about correcting rudeness