Can Self-Righteousness Be Necessary?
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.
More Manners and Good Etiquette
- Julie Morgenstern's rules for being on time
- Don't bleach your mustache at the farmer's market, and other beauty lessons
- How to say no to a bad table at a restaurant, and 12 other dining dilemmas
From the December 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.