Political Correctness Versus Politeness

Donald Trump is a colossal jerk, but in some perverse ways he is serving a useful function.  Through his appalling behavior, he is helping to illustrate why soft-side skills and manners — those little behavioral mores that any advanced society inevitably will develop over time — are crucial in our world.

Trump castigates the culture of political correctness in America, arguing that it is a kind of straitjacket that distracts us and, in some instances, prevents us from meaningfully addressing the realities of our world.  Many think that overarching concepts of political correctness have, in fact, become a wet blanket that stifles free speech and allows people to object to the phrasing of a message in order to avoid grappling with its substance.  But there is a big difference between political correctness and simple politeness, and with his comments about women generally, and Megyn Kelly specifically, Donald Trump has once again blundered across the line.

Don’t tell me that Trump’s comments are just a rebellious rejection of the PC mentality, as if he is a Gulliver held down by the social constraints of Lilliputian sensitivities.  Instead, apply the Mother or Grandmother Test:  Would your Mom be proud of you if, in articulating your disagreement with a woman, you made an unseemly comment about her menstrual cycle?  My Mom or grandmothers sure wouldn’t — and I’m guessing the same would be true for just about everyone.

This isn’t because of political correctness, it’s because of basic concepts of decency and courtesy and etiquette.  Most people are aware of the importance of these qualities and strive to achieve them; Donald Trump evidently doesn’t because he is too ill-mannered and uncultured and egotistical to even recognize their essential value.

Donald Trump will never be President, of course, because ultimately even those who now are enamored of his “outspokenness” will come to recognize that you would never want such a coarse boob acting as the face of America.  I think that realization will happen sooner rather than later, and Trump’s thin-skinned idiocy is helping to bring that inevitable result about and teaching some useful lessons in the process.

The Lure Of Niceness

This morning I was boarding a flight from Denver back to Columbus.  The Denver airport as a madhouse, the security lines apparently were record-breaking in their length, and there was a certain grim-faced tension in the air.  But the gate for the flight to Columbus was an oasis of . . . niceness.

They called the groups, and there wasn’t the customary sharp-elbowed clustering around the entrance way to the gate.  As my group was called, I motioned a young woman to go ahead of me, and then a young guy motioned me to go ahead of him.  The young woman shook her head, looked at me, and asked:  “Is everyone in Columbus so nice?”

IMG_5880I asked her what she meant, and she said that she had just gotten off a flight where the jostling for seats and carry-on space had gotten uncomfortably close to outright anger between passengers.  The willingness to let others go first and accept that, yes, your seat would still be there was amazing to her.  “Well, I can’t say that everyone in Columbus is nice, but it is the Midwest,” I responded.  “People say hello to each other, smile at each other on the street, and don’t mind having a pleasant conversation with a stranger in a public place.”

She was coming to Columbus for a conference and decided to make a vacation out of it, and we chatted briefly about some things to do here.  When I wished her a good trip, she said she was looking forward to her visit and that it would be great to go to a place where people were actually pleasant to each other.

Columbus — we may not have mountains, or oceans, or lakes, but what we lack in striking natural beauty we make up in politeness.

The Unforgivable Male Flip-Flopper

Tonight I was in a hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and a guy was there wearing flip-flops.  As we walked down the hall he flapped loudly along, drawing our attention down to floor level, and we all got to admire his feet.

IMG_3305Call me a crank, but I think a guy wearing flip flops in a hospital at night is unforgivably impolite.  I don’t mind people of both sexes wearing flip flops at a pool, or on the beach, or at an informal backyard barbecue on a hot summer night.  I give kids a pass, too.  But there is a time and a place for everything, and a grown man wearing flip flops in a public building when the temperature is about 56 degrees outside is just not right.  When you add in the fact that it’s a hospital it seems even more inappropriate.

I know we’ve gotten increasingly informal in our society and become accepting of things that once would have been unthinkable.  I’m old enough to remember when people actually got dressed up for airplane flights; now when you board a plane you often feel like you’ve intruded upon an over-sized sweatpants modeling convention.  We’ve become a society of appalling slobs.

I recognize that, in the grand scheme of things, a guy wearing flip-flops in a hospital at night isn’t the worst offense a person can commit — but I also believe in the “broken windows” theory that holds that little things, if left uncorrected, can lead to social disorder.  A guy wearing flip-flops is a harbinger of chaos.  This is where we need to draw the line.

When A Person’s An Ass

Today the Red Sox fan and I went out to lunch.  When we got to the restaurant, it was jammed.  We waited patiently, and the friendly hostess ultimately said she could seat us at a bar area in the rear of the restaurant.

We walked to the back of the restaurant, she left the menus on the bar counter top, and then she walked back to the front.  When the RSF and I pulled out the chairs to sit, the guy in the next seat over said, loudly, “Don’t sit there.”

“Excuse me?”

“You can’t sit there,” he said harshly.

“The hostess gave us these seats,” the Red Sox Fan said, reasonably.

“I don’t care what she did.  We’re a party of seven, there are two more of us, and that’s where they’re sitting.”

This presented a choice for the RSF and me.  We could get into a public argument with a colossal ass, or practice the fine art of avoidance, swallow our anger at being treated so rudely, and return to the front of the restaurant.  We chose the latter course.  The hostess wasn’t happy with the jerk, either, and promptly seated us elsewhere — but the whole incident left a bad taste in our mouths.

I don’t mind that the people were saving seats, although they obviously should have told the hostess when she escorted us back and left the menus on the bar.  Even so, the guy could at least have been polite about telling us — perhaps by saying something like “Excuse me, I’m sorry, but we are saving those seats for two of our friends” instead of treating us like gutter slime or some hapless peasants trying to sit at the king’s table.

Why are some people such asses?  Do some miserable people get their kicks from being unnecessarily rude to complete strangers?  I have no desire to sink to that level and trade rudeness for rudeness, but it’s rankling.

A Poll On Politeness

Tonight Kish and I went to dinner with friends. We had a nice meal with great company, but the evening also involved an off-putting instance of what I considered to be incredibly rude behavior.

The scenario was as follows. We had reservations for 7 p.m. — the heart of the Midwestern dinner period. When we got to the restaurant, the hostess said the people at our designated table were done with their meal and would be leaving soon. A few minutes later, we were escorted back to the table by a waitress, but the people were still there. The waitress apologized. Rather than head back to the hostess station, we stepped over to the nearby bar area, in plain sight of the table, and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited.

I know the people at the table saw us, because one of their party glanced over at us from time to time. It was obvious we were waiting for them to leave. But they continued chatting gaily over their empty table, and even got a refill of their water glasses as we stood by the bar. Eventually the restaurant found a new table for us, and when we were seated the people were still there, occupying a table and apparently unconcerned that they were inconveniencing others.

It’s a small matter, perhaps — but I never would have lingered at a table under those circumstances, knowing that other people were waiting. Am I wrong in considering the people at the table to be grossly inconsiderate jerks?

Cursing Ohio

According to data published in The Atlantic, Ohioans tend to be ill-mannered jerks. The data was gathered from more than 600,000 recorded calls — to service reps, banks, and other businesses in more than 30 industries that advise you that your call to them might be recorded.  The recorded calls were sifted to identify the obscenities, and then sorted by state.  The results showed that we Buckeyes are far more likely to swear than, say, people who live in Washington or Massachusetts.  What’s more, Ohioans also are among the callers least likely to say please and thank you.

Why is this so?  Ohioans are usually a pretty mild-mannered bunch.  We live in the middle of the country.  Our population is divided between urban and rural, blue collar and white collar, Republican and Democrat, and we manage to get along just fine.  We don’t have the reputation for arrogance of, say, Californians, and aren’t known for rudeness like New Yorkers are.  So what gives?

The answer is simple.  Ohio is home to the Cleveland Browns.  I’d be willing to wager that the vast majority of the cursing communications were recorded on Sunday nights during the fall, after the Browns have managed to fumble away another game.  When your team somehow manages to lose a 12-point lead with less than two minutes in the game — and that’s a routine result — all you can really do is launch invective at the heavens or, alternatively, the poor schnook who has fielded your call about whether there’s some way to fix that plasma TV screen you just kicked in.

Presumed Familiarity, Feigned Interest

One other point about the wedding we attended on Friday:  weddings are an interesting opportunity to observe basic human social interactions.

Consider wedding reception tables, for example.  If you’re a member of the family you might be seated with other family members, or if you’re an old college chum you might be noshing with dormitory buddies.  If you’re just a random friend, however, you’re likely to be assigned to a table where most of the seats are filled by complete strangers.  That’s what we got on Friday.

It’s interesting how quickly you reach conclusions about people under those circumstances.  The woman seated to my right — whom I’d never met before — swept in, introduced herself as an old friend of the family, and then promptly launched into a long, inane story about her son, whom none of us knew, and his living arrangements in New York City which included some kind of terrible bathroom.  The story was apparently pointless, aside from the fact that it gave this woman something to talk about.  After five minutes or so, when she paused for a breath and then started to move into a story about her son’s roommate from Texas — an unknown person even farther removed from our realities — someone stepped in to end the woman’s tedious monopolization of conversation at the table.

As the interminable apartment bathroom story was underway, the other people at the table feigned polite interest in the meandering tale but exchanged some meaningful glances.  I’d guess that most of us immediately concluded that the woman was hopelessly self-absorbed and unwilling to engage in the normal social niceties — which require that you at least ask strangers some questions about their lives before you bore the pants off of them with a tale as long as Beowulf.

After that gruesome introduction, I shifted my attention to the left and tried to avoid any head turns to the right, lest the woman pull out her cell phone and begin to inflict a show of photos of her family, friends, and pets and tedious anecdotes about the latest family vacation.

Anti-Social Media

Does social media make people ruder?  One survey says that is the case.  More than 75 percent of the people surveyed say they think people are more likely to be insulting on-line, and almost 20 percent say they have seen people end their “real” relationships after a social media spat.

I don’t know how scientific the survey is, but the results really shouldn’t surprise anyone.  Incivility increases with each step we take that is farther away from face-to-face interaction.  That is because it is not easy to be hurtful and insulting to someone’s face.  You see their reaction, physically, and you think that you wouldn’t want someone to say something mean to your face, either.  The natural tendency therefore is to tone down the rhetoric.  It’s somewhat easier to be rude over the phone, but even then you can hear the hurt in the other party’s voice.

But as you move away from immediate, personal contact, the visual and verbal cues that encourage civil behavior vanish.  Any employment lawyer or HR manager will tell you, with a shake of their head, that people write incredibly harsh, stupid, and ill-advised things in email messages, and the same is true of social media.  People act in the heat of the moment, without reflection or any brake on their offensive impulses, thinking they are being clever when they are really just being crass.  Discourtesy and angry reactions are the inevitable results.

Social media has a lot of advantages as a means of keeping in touch with people, but it also provides a ready mechanism for thoughtlessness on a large scale.  We’d all be better served if we paused before hitting the “post” button and considered how wounding our words might be.

Hummers, Blockers, And Baggage Wranglers

Whenever you travel by plane, you’re inevitably going to be introduced to certain personality types that make air travel so . . . interesting.  Here are three that I experienced in my recent journeys:

The Hummer.  On one flight I sat next to a man who hummed constantly.  I’m sure he wasn’t aware he was doing it, and he probably also wasn’t aware that he couldn’t carry a tune in a sealed Tupperware container.  His dissonant humming — what song was it, for God’s sake? — quickly became as annoying as the buzzing of a persistent fly that ignores repeated swatting attempts.  I debated whether it would be polite to ask him, through gritted teeth, to please stop humming.  Fortunately, he fell asleep.  Never were snores so welcome!

Blockers.  Blockers are those distasteful folks who, as soon as the plane arrives at the gate, spring from their seats and consciously block the other side of the aisle as they remove their luggage from the overhead bins.  If you wait politely for them to move aside so you can get out and get your bags, some do — but more often these selfish turds will put their luggage down in the aisle and expand their blocking zone.  On one flight a female blocker had her roller bag extended behind her, blocking two rows, and was talking loudly on her cell phone to boot.  From the murderous looks of fellow passengers, I’m confident I was not the only person to conclude that the woman was a misanthropic, self-important jerk who, in any just world, would suffer an embarrassing, ego-puncturing pratfall as she exited the plane.

Baggage Wranglers.  Baggage wranglers waddle onto the plane overloaded with carry-on materials.  They blithely ignore the “two carry-on items” rule — the most unenforced rule in the history of the world — and thrash down the aisle, bags banging against headrests and roller bags jamming against seats.  If you are in an aisle seat, beware:  baggage wranglers are oblivious to your existence as they search for precious overhead space to store one of their 50 carry-on items.  My knees and shoulders were clouted repeatedly by over-stuffed gym bags, full-to-bursting plastic sacks, and laptop cases during the boarding process for my flights, without a single apology from the clods carrying them.

Most Americans seem to be decent, polite people.  Why do those qualities so often seem to be left behind when people travel?