The Unfortunate Demise of Common Courtesy

I have a question for anyone who cares to comment: Why, in your opinion, are people just plain rude sometimes? I don’t mean mindless rudeness, which is plenty annoying—loud cell phone conversations in coffee bars, leaving drips of catsup on the table in a self-service restaurant, cutting off another driver in traffic, and the like.  

I have a new coaster for my coffee mug these days. It’s a ticket I got for parking, legally I thought, in a hospital parking deck. The deck, tucked amid a labyrinth of distracting construction scaffolding, walkways and orange cones, is a visitor lot. And I was a visitor, attending a meeting there. I failed, however, to see a large sign swinging over the automated gate at the garage entrance. This sign clarified that I had to be visiting a patient. I didn’t see it because I was looking at the clock-in box, the gate itself, and the bumper of the car in front of me. I cite a research study in which a random sample of people were asked to watch a basketball video. Midway through, a large man in a gorilla costume walked across the court, and more than half the study subjects did not notice. I would have been in that half.  

After the meeting, I pulled up to the attendant’s station, perched, conveniently, high above my head, said “hello” and gave the woman my time slip. She squinted at the three-inch scrap of paper for a rather long time. Then she glared down at me dramatically. I had the uneasy feeling I was on the brink of making her day for some mysterious reason. “Why did you park here?” she demanded, in a voice that might have been appropriate, had I snuck into the White House and faced an interrogation by the FBI. 

Confused, I said simply, “I had a meeting,” an answer which made her lower lip protrude even further. She whisked out a pen and swished out of her box. With chest thrown out so far the buttons of her blouse strained like a flimsy dike, she marched to the back of my car and made a great show of transcribing my license number. Returning, she thrust a $45.00 ticket at me and delivered a lecture, which was several booming variations on the theme “Can’t you read that huge sign!?” Apparently, I surmised for myself, since she was ranting and not explaining, parking slips must be validated by one of the Pink Ladies at the welcome desk, and they’ll send you away empty-handed if you aren’t visiting a patient.

Experiences like mine are all too common in our hectic world. I can think of several reasons why: Some people feel powerless and out-of-control, or they lack a sense of connectedness to others, or they’re totally stressed. But maybe they haven't figured out that kindness makes you feel happy: it benefits the giver. Rudeness does not, and, even worse, apparently it spreads like an illness. We'd all do well to remember a Harold Kushner quote about what happens with kindness: "It is as though something inside your body responds and says, YES! (emphasis mine) This is how I ought to feel."