The Misanthrope

Having good manners doesn't require that we be "sunshiny" all the time -- or ever

Dear Social Grace,

I enjoy your column very much, and I pretty much always agree with your advice. I believe in proper etiquette, and I try to be a polite person. The thing is, I fail all too often. I wake up in a good mood and resolve to be polite all day ... but then ... I get to my crowded gym, where no one else follows the rules of getting off the treadmills after 30 minutes or sharing their weight machines, no one else wipes their sweat off the machines, and people push and shove their way through the locker room. After that ... I head to Starbucks, where men shove past me and let the door swing shut in my face, the cashier won't meet my eye, the woman in front of me is counting out nickels to pay for a $4 drink, and the barista screams "Thank you" like he's cursing at me. Then ... on the bus to the office, I'm pressed against filthy homeless people, stupid teenagers with blasting stereos, and grown men pretending to doze off so they don't have to offer their seats to old ladies. By the time I get to my office building, I've become a total bitch, and I know it. I'm so irritated. All my good intentions of the morning are out the window ... I slam through the front doors without looking behind me. I walk right past the nice old security guard without saying, "Good morning." I take the last bit of coffee out of the office pot without refilling it. I bark at my co-workers. Other people's rudeness and stupidity has turned me into a rude, stupid person myself!

My question is, how do you fight this? I want to know how you can maintain a positive outlook when you're surrounded by such rudeness in the world? I know people who are able to be sunshiny all the time, who love their fellow man, etc., and I want to be like them. What can I do? How do you prevent others from dragging you down? Can you help me with this?

Little Miss Misanthropist

Dear Misanthropist Madam,

I sincerely hope I can help. First, let me clear up an evident misconception. Having good manners does not require that we be "sunshiny" all the time. Some days, when humanity seems to drag me down, the bare minimum -- a dignified, calm courtesy -- is all I can muster. Etiquette and manners rules are important tools of the intelligent misanthrope: If you've decided that humankind is, in the main, untrustworthy and unpleasant, then rigorously employing civility is pretty much the only way to make it through your life without hurting someone -- or falling to your knees and breaking into breathy sobs right there in the Safeway checkout line. Courtesy and affection are different beasts. You needn't like people to be polite to them, and our duty to be polite extends (perhaps even more importantly) to people we dislike very much.

Now, on to some specific advice for you, madam: I feel the pain in your letter, so I'll just wonder aloud whether your problem is bigger than a Social Grace column. If getting to work makes you miserable every day (and it's not that I don't understand the problems you're facing -- my commute, too, can be frustrating), you might consider talking to a health-care professional about it. You might also contemplate changing your morning routine (for example, a new gym, a new coffee place, or leaving for work a bit earlier).

Then, remembering that the truly polite person does not make a distinction between people she likes and people she doesn't, be very strict about courtesy even when dealing with people who seem, to you, obnoxious. This kind of self-discipline is not easy for many modern people. They've learned (illogically) that they, as individuals, are much more important than their society as a whole. They believe (wrongly) that they have a "right" to express every feeling or thought that comes into their heads. They insist (selfishly) that they are entitled to luxurious ease at the expense of others. You may have to re-educate yourself.

That woman at the gym who's been on the treadmill for 40 minutes? Get her attention and apologetically let her know that she seems to have lost track of the time. That shifty coffee-counter clerk? Force yourself to smile and thank her. And no matter how psychically wounded you feel when you get to work, say "good morning" to that nice security guard, hold the elevator door for other people, refill the coffee pot, and treat your co-workers with respect. Just do it, and I don't want to hear any more whining about it. Starting now, you will not let yourself be part of the problem.

It won't be easy. No one said that being part of a community would be fun all the time, but the benefits are obvious. (Hermits so rarely get to enjoy really good theater.) You may have to trick yourself into politeness at first. Try preparing in advance: Before you leave the house, tell yourself, "I will smile at or wish a good day to each person who meets my eye this morning." Have "happy thoughts" at the ready for those times when you get trapped behind a nickel-counter in the coffee line. In the end, not being a "bitch" is its own reward. You'll feel better about yourself and the people around you if you force yourself to behave better. You'll sleep more soundly at night when you know that you are a shining example of courtesy in a rude world. This cycle of good behavior will start you on a roll toward a more positive outlook -- I guarantee it.

 
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