I grew up in a village in the UK and remember well that all adults felt free to comment on my behaviour if I stepped out of line. There were no special school buses – just the regular bus, on which school children paid half-price. It was not uncommon for the driver to stop the bus and walk down the aisle obliging half-price schoolkids to stand for full-price adults, but mostly he didn’t need to. We knew the rules and offered our seats as a matter of routine.
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The enforcement of expected behaviour shapes and maintains the communities in which we live: If you belong around here then this is right and that’s wrong. This is polite and that’s rude. I suspect that such boundary maintenance is easier to do in small scale societies. Less so in cities.
Recently, I heard from one very angry Sydney-sider: “I stood up for a much older women as soon as I saw her getting on the bus and a teenager guy sat down in the seat instead! The older woman had to stand (and so did I). I was livid. The poor woman was almost falling over and no-one cared a jot.” That wouldn’t have happened in my village!
She followed-up with a text image of a young woman occupying two seats on a full bus (one seat for her and one for her handbag). Head phones on and engrossed in social media, it’s evident that she had no awareness of the needs of others.
On the other hand, it can be constraining if everyone is constantly on your case about good behaviour (and we all have something to learn). There’s a point where it becomes downright interference. Yet our Sydney-sider longed for the involvement of others and my village bus driver, Dennis, wouldn’t have let her down. There was no way a teenage boy would nab the only vacant seat on his bus!
Rudeness can be relative. It’s been decades since I travelled in Japan, but I still have a vivid memory of a woman on a bus so crowded that she had to stand with one foot on each of the two steps that descended to the exit. Even worse, she was carrying a child on her back who had his leg in plaster. I was horrified that the schoolkids on the bus didn’t jump up to offer her a seat. So I did, but she wouldn’t take it. I still don’t understand why not. Maybe I was rude to offer?
When I conducted a straw poll asking friends to provide stories of rudeness, most saw it as a sin of omission rather than commission: “More than rudeness, I notice invisibility as I get older when I am waiting at counters, waiting for service at a cafe or at the butcher. I find you have to be very alert to the serving people and notice where you are in the queue or you'll get overlooked.”
I know what she means. Medical receptionists are very good at keeping me waiting whilst they’re busy doing something much more important than attend to incoming patients.
So, given that ‘rudeness’ various across culture and time, how do we handle it when it happens?
Dennis, my UK village bus driver confronted rude behaviour, but I suspect that Australians are more inclined to step-back, like our Sydneysider who just seethed inside. There is an element of self-preservation in this as Lizzie noted: “I try to avoid noticing rudeness or taking it personally, if I encounter it. I assume the person is just a rude person who is indiscriminately rude to everyone – not just me.”
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