An accidental collision in the Target parking lot introduced me to a young woman. I was at fault, and admitted it; we exchanged contact information, then departed. ‘Nuff said? Oh, no. A few days later I received an email chock full of her instructions, couched not in sympathetic terms, more like a lecture from a study hall monitor.
I should have checked behind myself more closely, could have asked if she’d been injured, surely would have been in trouble with the police had she reported the incident. Although relieved she hadn’t accompanied the tirade with an abundance of swear words (“fuck” being the operative term for anyone under the age of 45), amid my irritation at her gall, I wondered when the standard operating procedure has appointed every person with an opinion as an expert compelled to tell all and sundry what they’re doing wrong.*
Whether it’s the food we eat, our personal care habits, or our politics, someone is sure to tell us we’re headed for disaster. The role of judge used to be reserved primarily to parents, clergy, military superiors, and, of course, judges. Now everyone’s an authority and ever-vigilant to deliver advice, whether requested or not.
One person points out the extreme dangers I’m courting when I drink an artificially sweetened soda. Another lists the impacts of GMOs on my health. My granddaughter knows I should be using special lotions for face, body, hands, and feet, and tells me so. My 4-year-old grandson shouts direction about how I should be driving and parking. On television a cacophony of ads bark the advantages of various health treatments, often in conflict with each other, which they warn against. In a meeting to plan an event, each person argues for a different agenda, speaker, budget. On a larger level, the same scenario plays out over issues such as oil development, political parties, even religion. Everyone is absolutely right at the same time totally wrong.
Is this simply the way we now function? Some believe Americans are so self-confident, they may feel they’re all-knowing and always correct. That’s not the point. To quote Isaac Asimov, “People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.” Know-it-alls are irritating and rude. I can overlook that in my friends, who have positive qualities and are speaking with the enthusiasm of religious converts dedicating to educating me. Not from a woman in a parking lot one-third my age and experience with not a glint of information about my qualities and state of mind. Not from the supporter of a candidate who believes he can solve problems I don’t even agree are problems.
Truth is, no omnipotent judge sits in the bar across from Loudmouth and me who’ll select the winner in a drunken debate. No absolute rights and wrongs in this game of life. Coming from a contentious family in which every member has more strong opinions and inclination to argue than sense or good will, I had to fight my natural inclinations before I stumbled on a new perspective about opinions. The more you talk, the less you’re listening. The more you lecture, the less you’re assimilating. While a lively debate can be fun, rarely does progress occur.
I’ve discovered I can shorten the amount of time wasted in futile conversations, lower my own blood pressure, perhaps even learn something if I shut up. Plus I can then feel morally superior to my opponent. I like to think I’m helping improve the general tenor of society.
“I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” Socrates.
In my rabid youth, I judged my friends by their politics and philosophies. I figured if someone wasn’t at least a left-leaning semi-socialist, they neither cared about the good of society nor read literary novels nor hugged trees. I didn’t want to be around them. I’m sure I had acquaintances who didn’t fit, but I carefully side-stepped discussions in which certain issues might come up.
Fast forward post-marriage and babies, and my outlook changed. Radically. Perhaps it was the consistent disruption of my nights by noisy if anti-war neighbors or the littered mess similar folks left in the wake of their parades and demonstrations. Perhaps it was the lackadaisical attitude of clerks in natural foods stores and cafes, who placed more importance on chatting with their friends than providing service.
I’ve come to believe that walking the walk absolutely over-rides talking the talk. Courtesy is critical, the kind of courtesy rooted in respect, not necessarily in etiquette books. Does an individual cut me off in traffic? His numerous bumper stickers supporting the candidate of my choice don’t prevent my knowing he’s a rude ass. The advocate for the homeless who dumps construction materials from his remodeling all over the alley gets zero points from me for his philanthropy.
This is especially true for people who make hard and fast stands on ethical issues. Puh-leeze. You’re not going to convince me by screaming. Just because you think the system of tipping service staff is patronizing and outmoded, you can’t force me into neglecting a gratuity. So what if you love dogs and want them prancing leash-free around the park? I’m scared of them, and I’ll continue to scold dog owners who don’t restrain their pets. And if I want to snitch a few fronds of dried greenery at the end of the summer from a neighbor for an arrangement, don’t excoriate* me as a thief.
To my surprise, I’m finding some of the nicest, most thoughtful people I know are ones whose choices on the ballot wouldn’t come close to replicating mine. Yes, people should express their opinions. Yes, they should live their lives and conduct their personal affairs as they wish. But as we struggle to walk, run, jog or crawl the rocky road through life, we’d be wise to value the oil that keeps our society functioning smoothly. The most important thing to bring along on the trip is human consideration and compassion, not opinions.
While politics can make strange bedfellows, civility brings even stranger fellows into bed. But to my way of thinking, at least the sheets are clean and the blankets tucked in properly.
* Excoriate: to criticize harshly, condemn
Recently waiters, clerks, even folks holding an elevator door for me have burbled “No problem” in response to my request for help. Puzzling because I’m not sure my request would be a problem even under the worst circumstances. Why does my call for a glass of water, or inquiry if a dress comes in my size, or a gasped appeal for a short delay in an elevator ride result in this response rather than “yes” or “sure” or a British-like “certainly.”
I’m not offended, simply curious how the phrase caught on. Its users are almost always under the age of 30 or 35; they frequently work in a service industry. Do they mean they’d let me know if they have a problem with my bidding? I can’t imagine anyone responding, “No, that’s a problem” and slamming a door in my face or refusing to refill my coffee.
I’m not the only person who’s noticed this. A commentator on a national news show feels wait staff are substituting the term instead of saying “you’re welcome.” I think its usage is broader; it also functions as general fill-in-the-blank verbiage and as a synonym for “I hear you.”
Perhaps I should be grateful for this small sign of language adapting to new needs. It confirms the vitality of English and its speakers. But it brings me to another phrase I DO have a problem with—good job! I first heard this maybe 15 years ago, used by a mother of three young boys on an airplane. I was very impressed by her calm demeanor and positive words to the trio. I’ve learned to use the phrase with my grandchildren, and it’s become so engrained, it’s automatic.
I was drawn up short recently in a restaurant when my waiter used the phrase on me. I’d eaten every scrap, and he lauded, “Good job!” My response? “Does it look like this body needed all that food?” He laughed, but I began to wonder if (1) I look as simple-minded as a young child, or (2) if I use the term too much? Some child-rearing specialists are pondering this point themselves. “Good job” may be too obviously reinforcing the adult’s desired behavior. . .it doesn’t encourage the child to make decisions on his own. . .is too judgmental. (See http://www.alfiekohn.org/parenting/gj.htm)
Food for thought, and certainly no problem.