By Amy Alkon, published on November 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
The fortysomething woman came within inches of crashing her Volvo station wagon into my car while simultaneously trying to park with one hand and yammer into the cell phone she was holding in the other. When I beeped to keep her from swerving into me, she vigorously and repeatedly flipped me the bird (I guess to punish me for existing, and directly behind her to boot). For her grand finale, she exited her car in workout gear, toting a yoga mat, and snarled back at me, "Just off to find a little inner peace, you redheaded bitch!"
Uh, have a nice day!
An aggressive lack of consideration for others is spreading across this country like a case of crabs through a sleepaway camp, and there isn't a lot standing in the way. Although people are quick to blame rampant rudeness on advances in technology, the unfortunate truth is, rudeness is the human condition. We modern humans are a bunch of grabby, self-involved jerks, the same as generations of humans before us. It's just that there are fewer constraints on our grabby, self-involved jerkhood than ever before. We're guided by quaint Stone Age brains, suited to manage social interactions within a small tribe—yet we're living in endlessly sprawling areas that would more accurately be called "stranger-hoods" than neighborhoods.
People understand how they're supposed to act because of social norms. But every time brutes engage in some form of social thuggery, they make it that much more acceptable for somebody else to do it. Others begin to imitate their behavior unthinkingly, or feel stupid or silly for feeling some compunction about following their lead.
For most of my life, I didn't pay much attention to rudeness. And then, one day, I just couldn't take it anymore. Overnight, I was like that "I see dead people" kid, except it was "I see rude people." They were everywhere: pushing, shoving, shouting into cell phones; leaving snotted-up Kleenex in the airplane seat pocket for the next passenger. Like Peter Parker, bitten by a radioactive spider and turned into Spiderman, I was transformed.
A woman in the Hollywood Hills Starbucks decided to treat all the other customers there to a command performance of her impromptu spoken-word masterwork, "The Birthday Party Invitation." She made five very loud calls—each the same as the last—giving her name (Carol), detailed directions to a kid's birthday party at her house, plus the time, plus her home phone number. I left this message on her voice mail when I got home:
Carol, Carol, Carol...the microphone on a cell phone is actually quite sensitive. There's no need to yell. You look like a nice woman. You probably didn't realize that your repeated shouting into your cell phone drove a number of people out of the coffee bar today. Beyond that, you might consider that I'm just one of about 20 people who know that you live at "555 Ferngrove Street," and that you're having a bunch of six-year-olds over at 3 p.m. on Saturday. Now, I'm just a newspaper columnist, not a pedophile, but it's kind of an unnecessary security risk you're taking, huh? Bye!
Even casual acquaintances know better than to dial my number on Monday or Tuesday, when I'm on deadline for my advice column, so the shrill ring of my phone late one Monday afternoon came as a surprise.
"Hello...? Hello...? HELLO?"
Was anybody even there? Not exactly. It took a couple of seconds for the recording to start: "Hello, this is Tim Snee, vice president of Smart & Final..."
Oh, is it? Great. Because if you're phoning me at home in the middle of my deadline, there's an appropriate next line to your call, and it goes something like "...and someone's died and left you a townhouse in the center of Paris."
But that wasn't Mr. Snee's message at all. Snee, I learned, was having some difficulty keeping shelves stocked at the warehouse store Smart & Final. He wanted to let his customers know they were working to solve the problem—lest anybody defect to Costco for their 100-packs of Charmin.
Yoohoo...Mr. Snee? You autodialed the wrong girl.
Now, I know most people just sigh and hang up when they get a call like Snee's—which is why we all get calls like Snee's. My time and energy are valuable, and he'd just helped himself to both. I drafted a letter spelling out my disgust for Snee's business practices and invoicing him for $63.20, and I e-mailed it to him:
How dare you call me at home with a recorded message? I am on the Do Not Call list, and I value my privacy. You woke me up in the middle of my nap during my deadline. Consider this an invoice for disturbing me: $63.20, which is my hourly rate for writing, since I'll probably lose at least an hour thanks to your interruption. I'll now try to go back to sleep so I can get my writing done.
I'm considering reporting you to the California Attorney General. Have a bad day.
A few days later, I got this e-mail from Randall Oliver, Smart & Final's "director of corporate communications":
I am very sorry that we disturbed you close to your writing deadline. Our message was meant to provide a helpful update to our customers, not to irritate them. Nearly all of the responses we have received have been very positive.
Really? Did other customers call you up and say, "I'm so lonely, nothing makes my day like getting a recorded message smack in the middle of my afternoon nap!"?
And finally, Oliver wrote:
We value you as a customer and hope to continue to do business with you. We'd be happy to send you a check for $63.20 as requested or alternatively would be even happier to provide you a $100 Smart Card for use at Smart & Final. Please let me know which option you would prefer.
I took the $100.
As wacky as my pranks may sound to some, behind every one is the message that it isn't crazy to expect people to have manners and consideration; it's crazy when we're seen as crazy for expecting it. If we're increasingly finding ourselves residents of Meanland, it's only because we aren't doing anything to change that. We get the society we create; or rather, the society we let happen to us. I'm hoping my book, I See Rude People, will galvanize at least a few people into performing their own interventions on the rude. But if we all just make an effort to treat strangers like they matter, maybe they'll be inspired to treat us like we matter, and maybe, just maybe, life won't feel quite so much like one long wrestling smackdown.
Excerpted from I See Rude People: One Woman's Battle to Beat Some Manners into Impolite Society by Amy Alkon (Nov. 27, 2009, McGraw-Hill)