Rudeness: You Don't Have To Be Rude, Though You Might Have To Preplan Not To Be
Novelist Rachel Cusk has a piece on rudeness in New York Times Magazine. An excerpt:
In a clothes shop in London, I sift through the rails, looking for something to wear. The instant I came in, the assistant bounded up to me and recited what was obviously a set of phrases scripted by the management. I dislike being spoken to in this way, though I realize the assistant doesn't do so out of choice. I told her I was fine. I told her I would find her if I needed anything. But a few minutes later, she's back.
How's your day been so far? she says.
The truth? It's been a day of anxiety and self-criticism, of worry about children and money, and now to top it all off, I've made the mistake of coming here in the unfounded belief that it will make me look nicer, and that making myself look nicer will help.
It's been fine, I say.
There's a pause in which perhaps she is waiting for me to ask her about her own day in return, which I don't.
Are you looking for something special? she says.
Not really, I say.
So you're just browsing, she says.
There is a pause.
Did I tell you, she says, that we have other sizes downstairs?
You did, I say.
If you want something in another size, she says, you just have to ask me.
I will, I say.
I turn back to the rails and find that if anything, my delusion has been strengthened by this exchange, which has made me feel ugly and unlikable and in more need than ever of transformation. I take out a dress. It is blue. I look at it on its hanger.
Good choice, the assistant says. I love that dress. The color's amazing.
Immediately I put it back on the rail. I move away a little. After a while, I begin to forget about the assistant. I think about clothes, their strange promise, the way their problems so resemble the problems of love. I take out another dress, this one wine-colored and dramatic.
God, that would look amazing, the assistant says. Is it the right size?
According to the label, it is.
Yes, I say.
Shall I put it in the fitting room for you? she says. It's just easier, isn't it? Then you've got your hands free while you keep browsing.
For the first time, I look at her. She has a broad face and a wide mouth with which she smiles continually, desperately. I wonder whether the width of her smile was a factor in her being given this job. She is older than I expected. Her face is lined, and despite her efforts, the mouth betrays some knowledge of sorrow.
Thank you very much, I say.
I give her the dress, and she goes away. I find that I no longer want to be in the shop. I don't want to try on the dress. I don't want to take my clothes off or look at myself in a mirror. I consider quietly leaving while the assistant is gone, but the fact that I have caused the dress to be put in the fitting room is too significant. Perhaps it will be transformative after all. On my way there, I meet the assistant, who is on her way out. She widens her eyes and raises her hands in mock dismay.
I wasn't expecting you to be so quick! she exclaims. Didn't you find anything else you liked?
I'm in a bit of a hurry, I say.
If inequality is the basis on which language breaks down, how is it best to speak?
God, I know exactly what you mean, she says. We're all in such a hurry. There just isn't time to stop, is there?
The fitting rooms are empty: There aren't any other customers. The assistant hovers behind me while I go into the cubicle where she has hung the dress. I wonder whether she will actually follow me in. I pull the curtain behind me and feel a sense of relief. My reflection in the mirror is glaring and strange. I have stood in such boxlike spaces before, alone with myself, and these moments seem connected to one another in a way I can't quite specify. It is as though life is a board game, and here is the starting point to which I keep finding myself unexpectedly returned. I take off my clothes. This suddenly seems like an extraordinary thing to do in an unfamiliar room in a street in central London. Through the gap in the curtain I can see into a dingy back room whose door has been left open. There are pipes running up the walls, a small fridge, a kettle, a box of tea bags. Someone has hung a coat on a hook. I realize that the theater of this shop is about to break down, and that the assistant's manner -- her bad acting, her inability to disguise herself in her role -- is partly to blame.
How is everything? she says.
I am standing there in my underwear, and her voice is so loud and close that I nearly jump out of my skin.
How's it going in there? How are you getting on?
I realize that she must be speaking to me.
I'm fine, I say.
How's the fit? she says. Do you need any other sizes?
I can hear the rustle of her clothes and the scraping sound of her nylon tights. She is standing right outside the curtain.
No, I say. Really, I'm fine.
Why don't you come out? she says. I can give you a second opinion.
Suddenly I am angry. I forget to feel sorry for her; I forget that she did not choose to say these things; I forget that she is perhaps in the wrong job. I feel trapped, humiliated, misunderstood. I feel that people always have a choice where language is concerned, that the moral and relational basis of our existence depends on that principle. I wish to tell her that there are those who have sacrificed themselves to defend it. If we stop speaking to one another as individuals, I want to say to her, if we allow language to become a tool of coercion, then we are lost.
No, I say. Actually, I don't want to come out.
There is a silence outside the curtain. Then I hear the rustling of her clothes as she starts to move away.
All right then, she says, in a voice that for the first time I can identify as hers. It is a flat voice, disaffected, a voice that expresses no surprise when things turn out badly.
I put my clothes back on and take the dress on its hanger and leave the cubicle. The assistant is standing with her back to me on the empty shop floor, her arms folded across her chest, looking out the window. She does not ask me how I got on or whether I liked the dress and intend to buy it. She does not offer to take the dress from me and hang it back on its rail. She is offended, and she is very deliberately showing it. We are, then, equal at least in our lack of self-control. I hang up the dress myself.
It wasn't my day, I say to her, by way of an apology.
She gives a small start and utters a sound. She is trying to say something: She is searching, I see, for one of her scripted phrases in the effort to reassume her persona. Falteringly, she half-smiles, but her mouth is turned down at the corners like a clown's. I imagine her going home this evening, unhappy.
When I tell the story afterward, making myself both its villain and its butt, it goes like this: I, currently dismayed by the sudden ascent of rudeness in our world and wondering what it means, am betrayed into rudeness myself by a personal sensitivity to language that causes me to do the very thing I despise, which is fail to recognize another human's individuality. But the person I tell it to doesn't hear it that way at all. He hears it as a story about how annoying shop assistants are.
I hate it when they do that, he says. It was good you made an issue of it. Maybe she'll give feedback to the management, and they'll stop making people say all that stuff.
Right. She's going to tell management "Your sales tactics are all wrong, you bozos!"
What that last comment is is a justification by Cusk for being rude -- the opposite of being accountable for it. Being accountable is what helps you change.
Passive aggressiveness seems to be at root in Cusk's behavior.
However, what makes her so annoyed, ultimately, is her neglecting to say what works for her -- to set up some boundaries.
Yes, once again, it's on her.
In a way, she's lost some freedom (though, yes, to a relatively small degree). Feeling a loss of freedom psychologist Jack Brehm found causes "psychological reactance" -- basically, rebellion against our freedom being impinged on.
If you're shy or freeze in the moment, you could do what I advise in "Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck" -- to preplan for situations like this. Remind yourself in advance that it's good to assert yourself. Politely -- as soon as you feel impinged upon: Like by saying, "Thanks, I'm just browsing."
You may need to say it twice, like if you end up in the dressing room and there's an attempt to give an opinion you don't want. I just say, "Thanks, appreciate that -- but I have a pretty particular personal style, so I'm good." Do I really "appreciate that"? Fuck no. I'm annoyed and don't want to be bothered. But why not stretch that tiny bit and cover that up -- because it's the kind thing to do?
If you do preplan, and you do assert yourself, it'll keep you from feeling increasingly abused -- until you blow up and go all ugly on some woman who's just saying those things because it's her job...surely not because she, personally, chooses to say them.