There ought to be a law, some easy-to-apply rule that can guide you in judging whether the things you do as the manners police are morally defensible or rudeness itself. A good cop/bad cop test. And I think there is one, so simple that even small children know it: Two wrongs don't make a right. Even if you do it in response to their bad manners, tripping people is wrong. As is hiding a shopping cart. As is spiteful spitting. As is tailgating the slowpoke in the fast lane. As is purposely jostling people who block the elevator door, no matter how maddeningly oblivious they're being.
What's interesting—and deeply disconcerting—about "Two wrongs don't make a right" is the leeway you have in defining "wrong." To take just one example, is it wrong to honk at a driver who's too busy talking on his cell phone to notice that the light has turned green? I would have said, emphatically, no—until I came across the work of Leon James, PhD, the country's acknowledged authority on road rage. For 20 years, James has been telling anyone who'll listen that people who go ballistic behind the wheel aren't alien creatures from another planet. In their relation to garden-variety irritated drivers, they're more like second cousins. And that's too close for me. It's not that I've punched a 79-year-old man for driving below the speed limit (as happened in Bluffton, South Carolina, in September), or attacked another driver with a tomahawk or claw hammer (as happens in Australia alarmingly often). But I have honked my horn at other drivers, called them dastardly names, and flipped them off. And even when I don't let them know how I feel, I always silently convict them when they screw up.
Which is exactly where I screw up. It's painful to admit, but when James and his wife, Diane Nahl, PhD, describe, in their definitive book Road Rage and Aggressive Driving, motorists whose default mind-set is one of "readiness to criticize or expect the worst of others," they could be talking about me. (Or at least me since I've lived in New Jersey. In Allstate's most recent ranking of the cities that are home to America's lousiest drivers, four of the eight worst cities were in New Jersey. Newark, the worst of the worst, is practically in my backyard.) The mind-set is what James and Nahl call roadrageous, and they attribute it to a person's being too emotionally territorial, having too high an emotional stake in too much of what goes on around them: "In this mental state, we drive with the proverbial chip on the shoulder. The eyes and thoughts are automatically pressed into servicing these unwritten rules: A mistake or infraction must not go unnoticed, a blunder deserves ridicule, a reckless act ought to be punished, other drivers' bad behavior must not be rewarded...."
Here, surely, is a wrong on multiple counts. On a personal level, it's self-destructive: Paranoid driving—and by extension paranoid walking, shopping, parking, you name it—"revs up emotional levels of stress, resistance, and conflict," according to James and Nahl. In other words, being perpetually primed for other people's missteps makes you an unhappy wreck.
When I suggested as much to Judith Martin, the columnist and author better known as Miss Manners, she agreed. Yet from Martin's perspective, there's a worse wrong at play. As she told me (apologizing for the violence of the metaphor), "If you're always on the lookout for snipers, you're going to be shooting innocent people."
By "innocent," Martin meant the woman who really and truly didn't know that you were next in line, or the man who genuinely wasn't aware that he bumped you—people whose "accidents are characterized as affronts" because of our "presumption of bad will." But I can't help thinking that another innocent is getting caught in my crossfire—that every time I heave a stagy sigh at parents who let their kids hog the swing, or honk at the driver who hasn't noticed the green light, I'm teaching my 4-year-old daughter to be a person who spends her time tallying up insults and slights. And that's a soul-crushing way to live.
Still, we can hardly be expected to grin and bear everything. Even Randy Cohen, the man who advocates for good behavior every Sunday from his perch as The New York Times Magazine's resident ethicist, says, "You don't want to feel as if you're letting down the side." There must, then, be enlightened and enlightening ways to stand up for manners. And so there are, says Martin, with one caveat: "You can't define manners as having other people treat you well. The bargain of civilization is that unless you restrain yourself somewhat, other people won't restrain themselves, either." (Cohen's version: "There is pleasure in punching someone in the nose, but no utility.")
Next: The diplomatic answer to every conflict of manners