I love the Miss Manners column. It is admittedly part schadenfreude and part uppity judgement, but there is another part that is closer to self-improvement to make sure I’m not part of the broader social etiquette decline. Sure some of the directives are anachronistic and just don’t make sense for the 99% of us who don’t plan our day around social calls and junior league fashion shows, but most are just ‘duh’ rules of how to be polite in interactions with the world that we come in contact with. Say “thank you” if someone gives you a gift, even if you don’t like it; don’t charge people to come to a party you are hosting; don’t tell the bride that her dress is unflattering and shows off the fact that she is five months pregnant. Really the kind of thing we should remember in general but somehow manage to forget.
I was thinking about Miss Manners this morning as I was driving up the narrow streets that lead to my house and repeatedly veering into the gutter to avoid downhill cars. The truth is I think about Miss Manners a lot when I am on the road. It has been said before of course but is probably worth repeating, something seems to happen when we get behind the wheel and close that door and somehow start to think that we are now severed from the rules, consequences, and expectations of standard social norms. We say things and do things and behave in ways that we never would if we were out of our cars and in a room together.
Can you imagine if someone zoomed up next to you with their grocery cart and then wedged in front of you in line as you crept forward? Perhaps you would say, if this craziness happened, “excuse me, I was in line next.” Maybe they would say, “oh, pardon me I didn’t realize, here let me back off and take my proper turn.” Or maybe the exchange would look more like what happens in our cars when we get cut off, intentionally or otherwise: a beep or a blare of the horn to say, “not your turn” and then nine times out of ten the response involving some combination of more horns and gestures and perhaps even yelling and cursing out the window from both parties. I was at an intersection recently and was proceeding straight through on a green light when the person opposite raced into a left turn. I slammed on my brakes and hit my horn, my way of communicating the fact that a social more had been violated. They hit their horn in return and yelled out the window, “f*** you!” Not only was I upset by the fact that someone else violating the rules of the road caused me stress, but I really could not understand the position they took wherein it was acceptable to be aggressive back. Here is where Miss Manners might be able to lend a hand: if you are intentionally violating the rules then do so, own it and go about your business without adding insult to injury as they say. If it was an accident and you just screwed up, as we all do at times, then apologize! Give a little wave of the hand to acknowledge the error, don’t blame your problem on someone else.
The hill that I live on is steep with very narrow streets. The best of the streets could have cars pass each other going in opposite directions but for the fact that most of the time cars are parked along the sides and in gutters. Thus almost all of the streets are de facto one way and require caution as you wind up or down around blind curves. At least once a day I find myself in a bizarre game of hill-street chicken where if someone doesn’t pull over we will both be getting new front ends. If I more or less have to be on the wrong side of the road to proceed I pull over, but I am amazed by how often the person in that position doesn’t. Perhaps they don’t know that they don’t have the right of way or they didn’t read the etiquette guide for driving in the Oakland Hills. When I am in the opposite role and someone pulls over for me I gave a little wave of thanks as I pass. It is a courtesy. Presumably this person is in someway a neighbor, or at any rate someone sharing the experience and I want to appreciate the community benefit that happens when we are thoughtful about the world beyond our own immediate needs. But the vast majority of the time, maybe ninety-five percent of the time, when I have pulled over, there is no wave, no acknowledgment, just a hurried barreling on to wherever they were going in the first place.
I don’t know that if Miss Manners wrote a manual on good behavior behind the wheel many people would read it. Perhaps it is cynical of me to think that not many people are reading the guide on general behavior in life since it does seem like our car behavior is creeping into our physical interactions more and more. But wouldn’t it be great if we did read it, or live it, or at least acted a little nicer a little more often. Maybe if we just pretend that we have to live with these people we are zooming by and cutting off and screeching at, maybe if we thought about how that makes us feel and acted like feelings matter, maybe that would help.