Years ago, when I lived in Connecticut, my boyfriend and I spent summer weekends in Maine; on the drive north, as we neared the dreaded tolls in Hampton, New Hampshire, traffic invariably slowed to a crawl, and just as invariably, some drivers (perhaps inspired by the state's motto, "Live free or die") would decide that the breakdown lane was their personal superhighway. They zoomed, we fumed—until we found a way to thwart their rudeness. As luck would have it, my boyfriend's car was a 1959 Buick, a car big enough to be its own instant no-passing zone: We'd creep along, going no faster than the prevailing snail's pace, but taking up just enough of the breakdown lane so that no one could get around us. It worked. The would-be passers were blocked. We had become the manners police.
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
Yet there's an even more bizarre response, which is to punish an offense in such a way that the offender has no idea there's even been punishment. The example that comes to mind is a friend—a man universally known as mild-mannered and sweet—who is so crazed by the sight of a car taking up two parking spaces that he has to spit. On the car. This is not only insane; given that the vast majority of us would never notice if our car had been pinged with saliva, it's pointless. Not to mention the chilly reception it would get in China.
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
Martin says, "You don't go around correcting people. However, there are diplomatic and tactful ways to adjust things." The operative principle is what she calls the assumption of goodwill: "You give people a way to look as if they want to do the right thing. So, for example, when someone cuts in line, if you say, 'Hey, you can't barge in there!' the person is going to lose face and feel challenged and will probably become even ruder. But if you politely say, 'I'm sorry, the end of the line is over there,' the person is far more likely to move."
That goes double if everyone else in line is looking askance at the person; Martin and Cohen both vouch for the power of social shaming. Of course, they also point out that such shaming depends on the existence of shared cultural mores, which, in a pluralistic society, aren't always around when you need them—say, when the person in front of you drops a Snickers wrapper on the sidewalk.
I asked Martin what she thought of handing the wrapper back to its rightful owner. On the condition that it was done politely, she gave me the thumbs-up. Cohen was less enthusiastic. "It's okay," he said. "But you risk getting punched in the nose. And it's slightly obnoxious."
In the matter of the woman who fails to clean up after her dog, Martin got an acute case of the vapors when I asked if it would be acceptable to offer the woman a bag. However, it turned out she thought I was suggesting that the bag be filled with the dog's droppings; an unspoiled bag, she said, would be fine. Yet she seemed to think simple conversation would be even better ("Excuse me, but that was my yard, and I wondered if you might clean it up"), and in light of our brief misunderstanding, I had to agree. It was a useful reminder of the ever-present danger that attends manners policing: Even the best-intentioned actions are subject to misinterpretation. People have been shot for dumber things than someone else's certainty that they were brandishing a bag of poop.
In the matter of a car that takes up two spaces in the grocery store parking lot, Martin approved my idea of leaving a polite note on the car's windshield. She also suggested asking the store manager to page the car's owner and ask that the car be moved. She favored this response not only for its immediate efficacy but because she imagined (quaintly, I'd say) that it would activate the driver's sense of social shame.
The idea that efficacy trumps mere venting is also dear to Cohen's heart. There was a time, he told me, when he was the kind of New York pedestrian who would slam his hand on the hood of a car that blocked a crosswalk. At his daughter's request, he gave up the slamming, but he didn't give up his abhorrence of private cars in New York. Instead he channeled it; he joined a group called Transportation Alternatives, whose goal is structural transportation change.
Warming to Cohen's dislike of cars behaving badly, I gave him the scenario of the Hampton tolls on the way to Maine—the heavy traffic, the breakdown-lane abusers, the Buick as roadblock—and waited for his admiring endorsement. It didn't come. He called our blocking maneuver an act of "petty spite" that belied "a mixture of jealousy and contempt."
Maybe he caught a whiff of my deep disappointment. Maybe he sensed my deep (roadrageous) need to be right. In any case, as though offering consolation, he encouraged me to see the problem of breakdown-lane passers as one of many that are simply insoluble. Not, perhaps, absolutely and permanently insoluble, but certainly "at the moment of crisis, at the individual level." And after I gave it some thought, I decided that his words weren't bunk; they were the truth, and if I let them, they could set me free. If many things are insoluble, it is not my job to solve them. If I don't have to worry about solving them, I really don't have to worry about them at all. And if I don't have to worry about them, I can stop blaming other people for having done them. I can start to accept that other people will do what they do. Leon James calls this the attitude of latitude, and it seems worth trying, if only as an experimental lark.
Cohen had one more thing to say by way of consolation—though in this case he seemed to be consoling himself. His own biggest peeve is inconsiderate cell phone use. He calls it, only half-jokingly, the end of civilization and confesses that he once went at it so intensely with a woman who took a call in a theater that other patrons wound up having to shush him. And yet it isn't the end of civilization, and all isn't necessarily lost—if only because, as they always have, manners will continue to evolve. "Cell phones are a new technology," he says. "And what's regarded as acceptable conduct is still in flux. Which means there's hope. We might still win that one."
So you fight the good-cop fight. You go to the store manager or other authority. When possible, you join a group that's working toward systemic change. And maybe for good measure, you balance every instance of manners policing with an act of guerrilla kindness.