So I work in a mailroom… that means I work in a basement. Most mailrooms end up on the bottom floors of buildings, I guess because it’s easier to receive deliveries and such. At the end of each day, I take the daily postage report and a fist full of mail count forms up to my boss so that she can audit the report and make sure that everything was charged accurately, and to the correct department and division, etcetera.
So at the end of my workday today I’m waiting for the elevator and it opens, and there are a few people in there. This isn’t too uncommon; people often hop on the elevator up at floor one without noting whether the car is headed up or down and end up unintentionally visiting the basement en route to upper floors. So I wait to see if anyone is going to get off of the elevator, and I count off five seconds. After I count off “five-one-thousand,” the elevator door starts to close, so I grab the door and get on the elevator. A woman pushes past me to leave the elevator, and says, “people leave before people get on, that’s how my momma raised me.” Now everyone in the elevator is watching her walk down the hall with expressions of discomfort and incredulity.
So the building that I work in is not always the easiest to navigate, so I understand if you’re not really sure where you are or where you’re going, and you pause before leaving the elevator to get your bearings. I get that, it’s happened to me before. What amazes me is that an adult would be so poorly prepared to handle feelings of awkwardness and embarrassment and insecurity that they feel the need to lash out in this way at other strangers rather than just say, “excuse me,” and go on with your day. That is actually the only motivation that I can figure out that someone would behave so unpleasantly toward someone that they don’t know and also in a way that makes everyone who witnesses the behavior think so poorly of you. It’s also the only reason that I can think of that someone would couch this kind of hostility in terms of courtesy.
I think I was eight when my mother told me that it’s rude to correct the manners of others, and that people would sometimes be rude and that I must never be rude back. Maybe I was younger, I’m not sure. In either case, it was easily before my teens that this lesson was imparted. And I’ll admit that here are times when I give people tidbits of courtesy information, such as the fact that you should always wait for a woman to offer her hand before going in for a handshake. (Some people will say that this is outdated and in fact sexist, but the more aware I’ve become of the fact that women’s bodies are sort of considered public property in this society, the more important I think this is.) But only to friends, and never to a stranger.
It seems to me that not only is this rude itself on the surface, but it seems especially now, in a day and age in which populations all over the country, even in my white little city, are becoming more and more culturally diverse.
And I also think that anyone for whom this kind of action is a priority must generally be pretty unhappy. I don’t know, maybe I’m getting old, but I feel as though I would much rather spend that time and energy doing things that benefit me or generally enrich my life.
So this got me to thinking about mean people… they’re everywhere, and the more densely populated the area that you live in is, the more likely you are to encounter them. And you know what? You can’t ever make mean people be nice to you. You can try, but you’re just going to be wasting your time, effort, and breath. So I thought about the most important parts about dealing with mean people, and I came up with a few things.
First, understand that the fact that people are mean isn’t about you, even if they are mean to you. It’s about them. Every time.
Second, it’s really important to not let interactions with mean people make you mean. This can be pretty challenging; hostile exchanges with people; friends, family, and strangers, can ruin your whole day and that can color how you react to people even if you don’t intend it to. I think the most effective way to do that is to recognize and be proud of the fact that you wouldn’t behave that way.
Third, understand that these situations are reminders about the importance of good manners. Now, I mean the important manners. I’m not going to care if you serve me fish without a fish fork. I’m just going to be glad to have a way to get the fish to my mouth without getting my hands all fishy. But the pleases, the thank yous, the handshakes and appropriate eye contact… these are the lingual and paralingual ways in which we negotiate sharing spaces, make friends, and tell other people that they matter; that we see them and acknowledge them as equal to us in humanity. And for social mammals, all of this stuff actually does matter.
Be kind, be human, be happy.