Sunday, August 23, 2009

Courtesy is Contagious

Change the World--One Random Act at a Time

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are changing the world. They have billions to spend solving problems on a global scale. The rest of us can make a difference too, and it won't cost a dime.

Politeness and Courtesy are Ever Diminishing
Receding as fast as the polar ice caps

Courtesy is Contagious was the theme of a short-lived California public service campaign in the 1960s. Billboard pictures showed a smiling driver allowing a fellow driver to merge. Radio spots promoted courtesy. Kindness toward strangers now seems as quaint and out-of-date as hippie-inspired '60s fashion.
     Global warming isn't the only crisis we face. Like the polar ice caps, courtesy is diminishing and disappearing. It's not too late to turn things around. My aim isn't to convert the miscreants of the world. I only want to encourage my readers to hang on. Don't give up. Don't go over to the dark side and become one of them--the miscreants. There's still time to make the world a better place on a microcosmic scale.
     I emphasize driving habits because other than sleeping and working, we spend most of our time behind the wheel--time that typically brings our quality of life crashing down, seldom the euphoric experience we see in car commercials.

Courtesy Has Checked Out

For proof of the decline of courtesy look no further than your nearby supermarket. As you wait your turn to pile your groceries onto the checkout conveyor, you may notice that the person before you didn't place the small plastic divider after their items. Did you know that only a few years ago it was common courtesy to do this?

This simple act of courtesy died out like a bad fad. It could be that too many people just gave up. Why should I put the divider down when no one else does? It's an alarming sign that our culture is lurching toward greater callousness. What small act of courtesy will be next? Waiting in line? Will people just descend in a mob where once they patiently queued up?

It's already happening. People used to politely wait their turn to board San Francisco's cable cars. At some point, boarding cars became ugly scenes of pushing and shoving. I saw a woman get knocked to the pavement.
     They had to install crowd-control devices. We need to get a handle on this before the culture becomes a preview of post-apocalyptic hell.

On the Road
It's a Battle

Preventing a road warrior future depends on all of us. On my daily commute, I have to fight my way into the flow of freeway traffic. Seeing my intention to grab a spot on the roadway, the trailing motorist will race to fill the slot I was heading for. It happens to all of us. How easy it would be to give up and become a NASCAR wannabe like them.

Cooperation, Not Competition

But there is a practical side to driving tactics. Traffic actually flows if you leave a couple of car lengths in front of you so people can merge. You have to leave ample space for slow-witted drivers too timid to take the initiative. They are so bullied they think you are trying to fake them out. If you leave enough space it finally dawns on them they can change lanes if only they will step on the gas.

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break

In my 20-mile commute, I probably let two or three dozen drivers use the space in front of my car to change lanes or enter the freeway. The drivers behind me sometimes go nuts, both male and female. They curse. You see the veins on their neck popping out. They flip me off and give me a good blast with the horn. It especially drives them crazy when there is an obstruction. I slow to let other cars get around the stalled car, the dead body, whatever, to loosen the bottleneck. Sometimes you get a wave of thanks. Maybe a miscreant has been won over.
     Isn't that practical? Wouldn't you want someone to release you if you were stuck behind a freeway blockage? They never think of that. They just go ballistic. The poor sap who winds up behind an overturned car gets what he deserves. If he wants to escape, let him fight his way out. Maybe it will cause another wreck.

Purposeful Courtesy

Don't get me wrong, road warrior outbursts get my hackles up. I'm human. I want to lash out in return. Before getting in the car every morning, I have to remind myself: Don't let them get to you. Keep cool. Life's too short.
     I think most people would agree that flowing traffic is better than a standstill. Gridlock develops when every driver tailgates, preventing lane changes and freeway ingress/egress. Up ahead, a guy signals for a lane change. Screw him! Let him try his luck somewhere else. I take a back seat to no one!
     Letting people use the space in front of your car is the gridlock cure. It's purposeful courtesy. It's just basic common sense, but when it comes to driving, common sense is anything but.
     With gas surging toward $5 a gallon, more people may be receptive to driving habits that cut fuel consumption. Electrical Engineer William Beaty might be the world's foremost authority. Read his tips.

The Age of Assertiveness
Do Unto Others Before They do Unto You

We've entered an era in which politeness and courtesy are seen as wimpy, letting others trample your rights.
     A coworker I was riding with blocked traffic as she attempted a maneuver. "I never used to do this," she said, "but I'm learning to be more assertive." I see, assertiveness means being a jerk. No, I didn't say it. She held up dozens of cars but strangely, no one honked. It's the New Courtesy. People will only honk if you do something polite, like stopping for pedestrians.
     Under the New Assertiveness it's OK to hold up traffic for your own selfish purposes. Your fellow motorists get it. They won't honk. It's no longer thoughtless or rude if everyone does it, so no one gets upset. What's rude is to honk or to express disapproval. That can get you shot or beaten to a pulp with a tire iron.
     Misguided assertiveness has replaced the outdated We're-All-in-This-Together ethic. You see it where drivers line up in a green-arrow left turn lane. In the past, drivers sensed a responsibility to clear the intersection quickly to help fellow drivers get through the light. When you're the eighth car in line you appreciate the alert response from those ahead of you.
     In the Age of Assertiveness, logic is turned upside down. People are in a desperate hurry with one exception: When they're lined up in a left-turn lane. This is where the newly assertive express their right to be a slowpoke. The new attitude is

"I'll take my sweet time. I'll dawdle. No one's going to rush me. I have my rights. I'll do some texting while I wait. Maybe I won't notice when it's my turn to go. Who cares? Let 'em honk! I'll go even slower. So what if I make those jackasses behind me miss the light?"

     Stuck behind a line of dawdlers, with precious seconds ticking by, you know you're running out of time. You'll have to sit through the light again.
     If you feel annoyed it's because you're not in sync with the New Assertiveness. You don't get it. It's your right to inconvenience people. Throw your cigarette butt out the window. Spit out your gum. Block the aisle with your shopping cart. Saunter down the middle of the lane in the parking lot. Talk real loud on your cell phone. Buy a Harley to blast the world with your racket. Put a 1000-decibel stereo in your car. Take your dog for a crap in the park. It's your right.

Courtesy Can Be Hazardous to Your Health
Remember what Mom said: It's how you act when no one is watching

Drivers who obey traffic controls and vehicle codes can become victims of road rage. My worst incident was when I stopped for a pedestrian at a crosswalk*. The people in the car behind me pitched a fit. When they raced around me screaming curses (with the windows closed) and flipping me off, they looked angry enough to kill. All because my act of courtesy^ cost them maybe 5 seconds. Oddly, they were a presentable-looking young couple, probably nice people when they're not riled up. As they left me in their dust, I had a chance to appreciate the tasteful worthy cause ribbons and honor student decals that adorned their SUV.
     Wouldn't it be easier to change my driving habits to please the miscreants? It's a moral dilemma for any motorist. You may fight it at first. After all, Mama always said to mind how you act when no one is watching. That's the real proof of who you are.
     When you finally give in, it feels good. You've gone over. You're free to indulge all your worst impulses. It's OK. All those people who think you're a nice guy will never find out what you're really like.
     The threat of road rage could be the biggest deterrent to highway courtesy. Nothing sends a miscreant into orbit like "bad drivers," people whose driving habits don't meet their zany standards.
     The worst bad drivers are slowpokes like me. On city streets, I only go ten miles over the speed limit. If no cops are around, a 25 mph speed limit entitles drivers to go 45-50. Since I'm only going 35, miscreants whiz around me, gunning their engines. Some honk, curse, and flip me off.
     It's common knowledge that ten miles over the limit is the threshold of eligibility for a speeding ticket. Why should I start worrying about tickets just to keep the miscreants happy? I wouldn't be crazy enough to actually go the limit. That would be cruisin' for a bruisin'.

*Until the early '90s pedestrians had the right away over vehicles in California, making the state one of the last cradles of courtesy to go over to the dark side.

^It's not really courteous to stop for pedestrians. You're supposed to.

A New Attitude
     Over the years I've revised my own thinking. I've learned not to get into a frenzy about being late. It's not the end of the world. All of your desperate measures to fly through traffic only save a minute or two.
     We congratulate ourselves for our superb driving skills, whereas those we share the road with have questionable skills at best. Regardless of your skill, there will always be someone out there who thinks you're a lousy driver and wants to beat you about the head.
     Yes, it's annoying when you're zipping along at a good clip and a slowpoke suddenly pulls in front of you. I guess I'm mellowing with age, but my temper doesn't flare like it once did. I don't own the road. It's not my personal racetrack. There are all kinds of drivers, including ones who are sloppy, careless, thoughtless, or clueless. Their skills may not be the greatest, but those "idiots" have just as much right to use the road as hall-of-fame drivers like you and me.

A Rolling Lynch Mob

It's one thing to poke along in the right lane, giving miscreants room to zoom around you. If there's no room for them to break free, it will only be seconds before the miscreants go berserk. You'd better speed up.

What if you're traveling a treacherous mountain road? I'll never forget the time on the way to Big Bear Lake in California when I saw a poor old couple being harassed by miscreants.
     Big Bear has a population who commute to jobs in Los Angeles. It takes at least two hours each way. They have mastered flying "down the hill" at the highest possible speed. They're not about to forbear flatlanders who don't know the road.
     The old folks poked along on a two-lane stretch. There was no place to pull over. The guy riding their bumper was having a psychotic episode while a tail of several more cars chimed in. It amounted to a motorized lynch mob. I'll never forget the look of terror those old folks had. It gave me chills.
     That's what we've come to. The poor old man might have had a heart attack from the stress brought on by those miscreants. In their eyes, he would have had it coming. Tough luck old man.
     It's scary to contemplate the brutality of a world without courtesy. It's something I don't think I'll live to see, but that's where we're headed. As with global warming, we have to turn it around.

Road Rage Countermeasures
It's not worth dying for

It's a mistake to underestimate the risk of injury or death from road rage. It may be true that people are basically nice, but you can't assume that when it comes to driving.

Don't honk!
     These people are angry to start with. It takes very little to set them off. Having to slow down for you ruins their day. Maybe your lane change didn't meet his or her approval. Whatever you do, don't give 'em a good blast with your horn. If someone is about to back into you, there's little choice but to give them a polite warning toot. A more severe honk is just like spitting in their face.

     This is the first sign of mounting rage. The driver wants to teach you a lesson. Stay cool. Your survival depends on keeping your own anger under control. Resist the temptation to antagonize the jerk (I mean, person suffering emotional distress). Get out of his or her way as soon as you can. If you have accidentally cut them off, you might pantomime an apology, but gestures are dangerous. Your friendly wave may be seen as an obscene gesture. Even seeing your lips moving could send them into orbit.
     Consider speeding up* just to make them happy. I know someone who got a ticket for this. "I was trying to get away from a tailgater," she told the cop. He didn't buy the story. A ticket is better than having your throat slit, however.

     *What if you can't speed up? Having car trouble makes you especially vulnerable. I know from experience. My old jalopy suddenly refused to go faster than 30 m.p.h. I was on a busy 4-lane boulevard, so the maniacs could get around me. But that didn't satisfy them. I was subjected to a barrage of curses, honks, fist-shaking, and obscene gestures. I am alive today only because none of my tormentors was packing heat that day, apparently.
     The old heap had served me well, but its usefulness was at an end. I nursed it to a junkyard and got 30 bucks for it.

Call 911
     Don't hesitate to call 911 as soon as you feel threatened. Just say, "A guy is tailgating me and I think he might cause a wreck." It's better to call while you're still calm enough to speak coherently. Don't be one of those screaming mimis. They will want to know your license plate number, location, direction of travel, make, model, and color of your car. They'll want a description of the tailgateur, so be ready.
     DON'T call your boyfriend or a relative. It will only make matters worse. (See below.)

Time is NOT on your side
     It's reasonable to assume that the subhuman (I mean, distraught person) following you will cool off in a minute or two. But that isn't how road rage works. If anything the anger builds as the chase goes on. Road rage is a special anger that erupts from deep recesses in our animal nature. It has something to do with the car being a component of your self-image and the road being an arena of competition. It's not a hot flare of temper, it's the same seething rage the fuels a riot.

Beyond the breaking point
     Once the maniac goes ballistic, you are in serious danger. You become a target. Pulling over is unwise. These people carry weapons. They may knife, shoot, or beat you. They'll produce a lead pipe or at least a baseball bat to break your windows, then bash your head in.
(If you're reading this, you're probably normal. It sounds crazy to carry a length of heavy pipe, a crowbar, or a baseball bat in your car. That's because you're normal. There's a set of mutants out there for whom this is not just reasonable, it's smart. You never know when you'll need to beat someone to a pulp. It's a Jerry Springer world out there. The wrong move could land you in a Jerry Springer nightmare of your very own.)
     Forget about where you were going before the ordeal started. Your mission now is to get away from the criminal. Drive to a place where there are crowds. For example, drive to the door of a fast-food outlet or drug store. I mean drive right up to the door. Take the handicap space if you need to. Remember, your life is at stake. Maybe you can duck inside before the miscreant can attack. Run inside while yelling "CALL 911! CALL 911!" Having to chase you down the aisle of a Walgreens may dampen their bravado. The presence of witnesses might snap them out of their frenzy.
     While you are driving to a place of safety, you may get stuck in traffic. Should you stay in your car? Jump out and run? Unless you are a sprinter, staying with the car is probably wise. Sitting in your car, the next thing to expect is the maniac smashing your windows. Before the attack starts, if you suspect he or she doesn't have a gun, consider climbing to the roof of the car and waving your arms while shouting "CALL 911!" The idea is to do something wacky that might throw the thug off stride.
     Consider evasive maneuvers such as a sudden u-turn, or driving down a center divider or sidewalk. These are crazy, dangerous moves. Maybe you'll smash your car, but at least you'll stay alive.

Devise your own survival strategies
     If you want a good scare set up Google alerts to send you daily "road rage" emails. They will give you an idea of the situations you might face. My strategies are based on scores of news items Google sent me from around the world.
     A road rage epidemic is under way. You take a foolish risk if you do anything to incur the wrath of a fellow motorist. I seldom venture out without getting some kind of static from aggressive drivers, particularly young males. Not only do I get out of their way, I pause for a minute to clear their negative energy. There are a lot of angry dudes out there. Don't let them suck you into their dark malignancy.
     Yes, the bullies have taken over.

The Vuvuzelas Are Coming!
Rudeness on a global scale

Time-honored traditions are growing obsolete faster than last year's iPhone. It once seemed beneficial for a country hosting an event for a worldwide audience to extend visitors a gracious welcome. A country might see the event as an opportunity to burnish their image on the world stage.
     In hosting soccer's World Cup, South Africa made the event all about their cherished vuvuzela, the blaring plastic horn they enjoy honking during matches. They make a stadium sound like a nest of angry mutant wasps buzzing at 120 decibels. Or how about 10,000 maniacal elephants trumpeting all at once? Killjoys from other countries suggested the deafening din is a nuisance.
     When a vuvuzela ban was proposed for World Cup, South African soccer officials cried foul, saying the horn is part of their culture. Accommodating guests from other cultures is not. They can't properly enjoy a match without their dopey horns, confirming the notion that soccer is the most boring of sports. Fans need something to occupy them during interminable spells of feckless dribbling on the field. The upside: blaring horns are a vast improvement over riots and hooliganism.
     Be on your best behavior? This is the new era. We do as we please. If you don't like it, too bad.
     Monkey see, monkey do: Look for the vuvuzela's popularity to spread to sporting events around the globe. It can't be long before a vuvuzela controversy erupts at the Super Bowl.

I Me Mine

I'm a closet agoraphobe. The worst part of going out in public is knowing you will encounter miscreants, people so self-absorbed they have lost any sense of appropriate behavior. They are seemingly unaware of any impact their actions might have on others.
     Take a hospital waiting room, for example. There may be people with relatives undergoing life or death surgeries, people waiting for a family member to die. Do you think that would slow down the cell phone addicts who insist on having loud idiotic conversations? They lack the sensitivity to notice the emotional context of a setting. It's all about them. It's today's mean-spirited definition of assertiveness in action.

The Courteous Underground
Courteous Diehards Aren't Giving Up

Walking into my local library not long ago, I was behind a young mother and her two children. The daughter looked about ten. The toddler started to fuss. The girl patiently instructed her baby brother, "You have to be quiet. This is the library."
     I was heartened that a few children are getting the right message. They will become part of the Courteous Underground, a few dedicated politeness fighters who will carry on the struggle for civility for generations to come.

Commerce Rears Its Ugly Head
An Array of Fascinating Goods for the Courteous Underground

Here's the annoying ad you probably thought I forgot to include. Click to view a plethora of products for the polite.

Related Links

Johns Hopkins Civility Project - Piero Massimo Forni sees being considerate as the foundation for everything from the environmental movement to women's rights. Make peace person to person then nation to nation.

Random Acts of Kindness - The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation inspires people to practice kindness and to "pass it on" to others. We provide free educational and community ideas, guidance, and other resources to kindness participants through our website.

Putting Politeness in Perspective

THE GREAT READER'S DIGEST GLOBAL COURTESY TEST - We ranked the world. Out of 36 cities, Toronto placed third, Montreal 21st.

Common Courtesies - The small courtesies sweeten life, the greater, ennoble it (Christian Nevell Bovee)

Welcome to Kindness Inc. - The worldwide command center for all things kindness.

Keep Cool or Die - A woman calls her husband to help out in a road rage confrontation, with tragic results.

Road Rage Videos - It can only get worse as belligerence overrules kindness.

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