Sunday, December 11, 2005

Just before I left Boston last Thursday for a week in Miami, I was walking down Washington Street through Downtown Crossing. It was not yet five o’clock, and already dark. A street vendor with a pushcart came darting across the street, right across my path. For a moment, we were at an impasse, and the mutual loathing was palpable. The sidewalk belonged to both of us. There was no reason either of us should yield it to the other. We could’ve remained there indefinitely, like the North-going Zax and the South-going Zax in the Dr. Seuss story, who found themselves in the same predicament. Both refused to budge an inch to the East or West—forever.

Well, I had things to do, so I yielded. But it disturbed me how easily I’d become embroiled in this needlessly hostile encounter. Neither of us had behaved graciously even though it would’ve cost us nothing. It highlighted something I’d been talking about with a couple of Latin American students visiting Boston during our most recent cold-snap. They’d noticed the bad attitude Boston is becoming known for. When asked what it was about, they both said, “it’s the weather.” People are bitter and cold in Boston because it’s bitter cold half the year, one said. They seem to want to conserve their heat, so they close shop emotionally in the winter months, the other added.

While I was riding my bike in South Beach Friday afternoon in nothing but shorts, flip-flops and my RayBans, soaking up the sun, not a care in the world, I thought about that encounter at Downtown Crossing. In the bitter cold and darkness of a long New England winter, people—myself included—seem willing to waste heat on hate, because you pretty much always know the reaction you’re going to get when you give it. But when you’re nice, half the time you get hate back, too. So why chance it? There’s also the misery-loves-company angle to consider. Foul weather, a foul mood, and foul language all seem to go together. Everybody’s rude, but at least we’re all on the same page.

The funny thing about rudeness is that, when surveyed, most people protest their complete innocence. It’s always someone else. In the Associated Press-Ipsos poll on public attitudes about rudeness, you’ll find such absurd claims as this: 87% of respondents claim never to have "made an obscene gesture at another person while driving a car.” And a whopping 91% claim never—never!—to have used their cell phone “in a loud or annoying manner in public.” Yeah, right. The first step in changing the culture of rudeness is to own it, people. The rudeness meme passes from person to person, and like the flu, it seems more common in colder climes. For my part, continued “light therapy” on the beach is just what the doctor ordered. I’ve made a shocking discovery in Miami: people actually smile in December. Can you believe it?

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