I realize that the title of this post is a bit off-brand for me, but I couldn’t think of anything sugar-coated to really sum up my morning.
Around 11am, I headed off to my usual coffee spot to get some work done. On my walk, I greeted the guy who owns the antique store, the waiters at the local outdoor diner and the man who owns the men’s clothing store. We talked about how we both have bad knees and I asked how his is holding up with the storm coming.
When I walked into the cafe, there was one man in front of me — 30’s hipster type, not particularly off-putting or daunting, just standard Montclair Freelancer Man. And then I heard him say something odd but couldn’t make out what it was. All I knew is that it was rude — no, beyond rude, it was some sort of attack. Everyone around him stopped and stared. He puffed up his chest and locked eyes with one of my favorite baristas. She stood dumfounded at what to stay. A few moments later, he stormed out.
“Whhaaaat was that about?” I asked. She looked startled.
“He stared into my eyes for a really long time in silence and then asked why I was charging him for a refill. Then he wouldn’t stop staring. I didn’t know what to do. It freaked me out.”
The other baristas and I helped her shake off his weirdness. Meanwhile, that a-hole went on about his day.
I headed home later, the weirdness of the guy behind me and, it seemed, behind the barista as well. I crossed the street and found myself in the pathway of a woman about my age hurrying somewhere. We did that awkward which-way-are-you going dance and when I smiled and said, “Excuse me,” she rolled her eyes and made a childish huffing sound past me. Something in the air today, I thought.
On the rest of my walk, I pondered what life must be like to carry anger and fear around on the surface that way. No matter where it comes from — pride, righteousness, exhaustion — that behavior must all go back to anger and fear. And however it appears, it’s rarely about the person receiving it, if ever. Still, do these people even know how much they’re missing out on by projecting their anger everywhere?
Quick note: Please know I am talking about people who have the ability to seek help for mental health issues. I’ve struggled with problems for years — in some phases of my life, serious ones. If my anger or anxiety gets out of control, I seek help and I realize I have that I privilege to do so. It is within my power, and therefore if my responsibility, to not redirect it toward the rest of the world. In this post, I’m speaking about the regular schmo carrying their rudeness about like a badge of honor.
“You’re so nice that people think you’re lying”
I was told several times in my childhood and young adulthood that my friendliness was off-putting. The words weak, fake and scared were thrown around a bunch. If I didn’t fall in line with the impolite competitiveness of our society, then I must have something else up my sleeve, either a secret or some sort of defect. How would I get ahead in the world if I couldn’t squash my enemies?
And then I met my husband. I’ve often compared Ben to a trusty golden retriever out for a walk about town. He puts nearly everyone he passes at ease with his confident enthusiasm and general excitement for turning a stranger into a friend. If he comes across a rude person on his walk, it rarely affects him for more than a moment. He’s quickly back to excitement for the squirrels, trees and other possible friends along the sidewalk. This, in my opinion, takes a hell of a lot of strength, not any form of weakness. Now if someone comes along who is threatening, especially to ones he loves, forget it. His charm transforms into a terrifying level of kindness-meets-intimidation that even makes me jump. He can call someone out for being rude with a huge smile on his face until the person looks like they’re questioning everything they’ve ever done in life.
Ben has reassured me that kindness and connection is not a weakness, but a way of opening doors to behind the scenes of businesses, performances and meaningful friendships. How does he do it? He’s not a douche.
“We’ve both worked in customer service”
I hear Ben use this phrase several times each month. Whenever a server, store worker or barista looks stressed, we bring out the great equalizer: “I know that customers can suck.” It seems like a simple concept, but treating every human being — literally all of them — with the understanding that you are equal can turn a business transaction into the highlight of your day. Now, I’m not saying that you should be nice in order to get things in return, that’s called being a sociopath. I’m saying that we live in a world that puts up walls between humans. By stepping out of those norms and showing a bit of humanity, the world opens up.
“Talk to my daughter, tell her where to go to law school.”
I can’t attribute it all to my husband, we were both this way before we met, it more just multiplied when we finally got together. I realize there’s a general “please don’t let my uber driver talk to me” vibe out there, and I understand why. Sometimes, especially as a woman, it’s safer or more comfortable just to get the drive over with. However, I’ve always broken the tension by over-talking. It’s probably a defense mechanism on some level, but I’ll roll with it.
About a month before I met Ben, I hopped in a cab after a very strange and unsuccessful date. The taxi got stuck in traffic on the way to Port Authority and the driver and I started chatting about his time living in the city after moving from another country. Within several minutes, I knew about most of his family life including that his daughter was moving to NYC in a year and currently applying to law school.
“Do you know the best law schools in the city?”
“I’m not really sure, I head NYU is great, but that’s really a guess.”
He’s now dialing his phone. “Here, talk to my daughter. She will appreciate your advice.”
The girl and I proceeded to have a very confused but sweet conversation about her hopes for law school, how she’d already found several great one and how she appreciated her dad’s constant help.
I got out of the cab aware of the rare one-act play I’d just experienced in a 30-minute taxi ride and had forgotten about the lousy date.
Things like this happen to Ben and I all the time, not because we’re some sort of saints, but because we’re simply interested in hearing people out. We’re close with so many business owners around town that we’re planning to have dinner with some of them before we move. On New Year’s Eve two years ago, I walked to the bathroom of a bar in Cape May, screamed “Happy New Year” to a kitchen worker as I passed, and he opened the door so they could all yell it back to me. To me, it was the greatest honor to not be seen as an “other” as customers and service workers are taught to be.
Half the battle is learning how to handle unkindness
Here’s where I struggle. When is it necessary to turn into the protective golden retriever? When does additional anger diffuse the situation? I’m not going to pretend to know the best answer, but this is what I came up with on my walk: if someone’s safety, rights or comfort is in jeopardy, it is your responsibility to step up.
But this takes practice. In the situation this morning, we all froze. Why would you be such a jerk over less than $2? Over a barista simple doing her job? Clearly looking for control, I can’t imagine the situation would have been so cut and dry if I’d lashed out at him. But what does it say to the barista that I said nothing? Still, my brain was frozen, I couldn’t have said anything if I wanted to. I do believe that the more you practice kindness, the easier it is to break it out and act in someone’s defense when this occurs.
When someone’s rights, safety or comfort is not being threatened, I’ve learned to let the unkindness go along its merry little way. Ben and I used to yell “You’re welcome!” in a passive-aggressive tone if someone didn’t thank us for holding the door. What did that do for either of us? Nothing. I am a firm believer that it is not my place to decide if someone — including myself — “gets what they deserve.” Obviously there is such a thing as righting wrongs, fighting injustice and standing up for someone — that’s different. But it is not my place to punish someone for their unkindness or decide that they get what’s comin’ to them.
Enthusiastic Kindness is a Muscle
Despite all this emotional blogging, I am a rather introverted person most of the time. I tend to straddle the line, but for the most part, I think about awkward interactions for days after they’ve occurred. I will probably panic immediately after posting this blog for fear of sounding superior. But I do know that kindness and humanity is always, always the goal, no matter how much money I’m spending for a meal, how much I feel wronged by human error or how angry and worn out I feel from the rest of the world. That is no one else’s problem, ever. And I’m frustrated by how often I see people missing out on this simple idea.
For those that have yet to see it this way, I wonder how much they’re missing out on. I wonder if they ever feel that they get “what they’re owed.”
I am certain that I have been rude and hurtful to people in my life; I’m sure at times without realizing. But I also learned the smallest ounce of humanity does wonders for how you see even the smallest tasks. People tell you their stories, people take the time to teach you when you make an error, and people invite you into the kitchen for a back-of-house toast. You get invited into people’s weddings, into people’s homes and into people’s lives. And if you’re not rude, well, maybe you’ll get free refills.