Having good manners includes responding to the rudeness of others. It is difficult when one is naturally reserved or dislikes conflict, but a few well spoken responses can completely dispel the tension arising from the inconsideration of another person. Some people might not feel that it is their place to be proactive when someone does something that offends them. They may prefer to ignore it, either from not wanting to make a scene or just feeling like it is none of their business how someone else acts. But the truth is, everyone’s actions affect the people around them, and if someone addresses a woman directly and makes her uncomfortable, I believe it is in her own best interest to respond in the best manner she can. This will make her feel better about herself–nothing wrong with that–and set the boundaries to others for how she wishes to be treated. Of course, when in doubt that she will have something to say that betters the situation instead of worsening it, it is best to remain silent. Based on my personal experience and that of others I know of, I have formulated various responses one could use in awkward situations that seem to pertain to my ideals of formality, respect, and gentility.
Consider this potential situation: Some people, such as a man and wife, parent and children, etc., are talking with each other, and a nearby person overhears part of it and interrupts to respond, even though he has no part in the conversation. I have observed this happening in checkout lines, on elevators, at restaurants, in retail shops, at the park, and at churches. The person interrupting may be an acquaintance but is usually a complete stranger, and his opinion generally reflects what he thinks the conversation is about based on the snippet he heard. Everything from marital and parenting advice to ordering and purchasing choices are dispensed by people who have no regard for the sanctity of a private conversation.
I have found myself in this situation repeatedly over the last year, such as when I would be instructing my children or speaking with my husband. Around the holidays, my family was breakfasting in a hotel dining room and I was trying to decide whether or not to put my youngest child in a high chair. I looked around and did not see one, so I approached my husband at the buffet and asked, “Did you see a high chair anywhere?” As we always do, we were planning to briefly discuss the merits of either finding a high chair or holding the baby. I suppose the conversation could have gone either way but I let another person derail my composure. My husband replied, “No–” but before we got any further, a nearby hotel employee said “Yes!” and walked up to us. “Yes, we do have highchairs, and I will bring you one right now!” Having intended to discuss my next move with my husband, I was so flustered that somebody who was clearly eavesdropping decided to “stick their oar in,” as they say on Anne of Green Gables, that I was speechless. The man walked away, and I began muttering to my husband about how I was upset that someone else had jumped into our conversation and how I would have preferred the opportunity to approach the man myself and ask for a highchair if that had been our decision. I think he heard me because he approached our table timidly later with the high chair and asked me if I wanted it. What I wanted was to be able to have a conversation without being interrupted and make my own decisions regarding my family instead of having them made for me by someone who does not have the same perspective, position, or privilege as I do.
For some time, I have been wanting to write about what to do when someone interrupts a conversation but never felt qualified to since I knew I was not handling it properly. But that day, while I was mentally replaying the incident to discern the root of the problem, I came upon the solution. The reason I become so upset when someone eavesdrops on my conversations and interrupts with his opinion is, quite simply, that I was not talking to him. What I should have done this morning was smile pleasantly and reply, “Thank you, but I am having a conversation with my husband.” That is all. I need not feel obligated to add, “But I will be sure to let you know if I need anything.” Some might think that saying that last part would be a polite way of validating the feelings of the person who tried to help, but it is only condescending and unnecessary. This response could be used in any situation in which one feels that she is being interrupted; the key is to remain calm, pleasant, and not offended.
No discussion of this sort would be complete without addressing the same situation from the opposite viewpoint, that of the helpful blundering employee. I feel sometimes that America is becoming a post-helpful society. With everything from advertising targeted to one’s specific information and interests to lawsuits involving the discernment of people’s feelings and mental intentions, our society is tending towards the pseudo helpful instead of the truly helpful. Instead of holding the door for another person, especially the elderly, a parent with small children, or someone carrying parcels, we feel the need to inform someone how to parent their child, what to do on their vacation, or why they are having marital problems. It is as if people have become less neighborly and more Oprah-y. I do not watch a lot of TV but I have seen enough to conclude that Americans have grown very comfortable with viewing other people’s lives and generating all kinds of out-of-context opinions regarding them. The blogging world is not much better, where countless families have posted so much personal information that one can virtually live vicariously through one’s favorite blogger. I admire the blogs who focus more on intellectual content and less on being a privacy-defying lens to some random person’s life, and I intend to use this blog similarly.
Back to the root of the problem: people everywhere need to cultivate the art of true helpfulness. It is not helpful to jump into the business of everyone around you offering advice, solutions, and one-liners. However, holding the door for someone is a genuine form of helpfulness along with many other ways. There is no formula for true helpfulness, but rather one should cultivate an innate ability to perceive the needs of others and meet them in her own way without intruding on another’s privacy, space, or individualism.