With so much going on in the world, social courtesies have gone out the window. Should we demand more of each other, or just let it go?
I am so disappointed in people. It seems as though we have all lost a basic sense of courtesy and kindness—and I’m not just talking about politicians and media pundits; they’re a lost cause. It’s my neighbor who parks just a little too close to my driveway so that I have to drive over my lawn to avoid hitting her car when I back out each morning. It’s the cashier at Target who rings up an item twice then throws a passive-aggressive tantrum (all with her eyeballs) when I mention it to her. It’s my co-workers who don’t say “good morning,” or raise their heads to acknowledge me when I offer this greeting to them each day. It’s drivers on the road cutting me off, or taking advantage of my patience to let them merge last-minute without so much as a courtesy wave. It’s the general lack of eye contact from everyone, nowadays so consumed with their phones, or navels to acknowledge the humans standing next to them. And at the risk of sounding like a Miss Manners of the Boomer era, no one says fucking “please,” or “thank you,” or “excuse me” anymore! It’s as though we have lost all sense of community, and frankly, it’s damn depressing.
I am a nice person, patient, and understanding that everyone is carrying around stress and baggage and preoccupations. But if we can’t be simply decent to one another in the most basic person-to-person interactions, how are we supposed to survive as a society? Please help me find a solution, or I fear the next time someone doesn’t look me in the eye or say “excuse me” when they slam their shopping cart into mine, or otherwise fail to recognize that I’m another human, I am going to lose it.
My Patience Is Waning
Just hit your neighbor’s car.
Ok, fine, don’t do that. This is a tough letter for me to answer because it’s clear that you are genuinely upset, and not just being a curmudgeon. But I also get the feeling that whatever it is that is really bothering you deep down is not articulated in this letter. There is definitely an increased stress and anxiety level in the world in general right now, and maybe you’re also experiencing some stress in your personal life, and sometimes when we are feeling that way it can make our skin feel a little thinner and make it easier for social slights to get under our skin. I bet a lot of people are feeling that way right now. I know when I’m in that mood, I can literally take rain personally. Like, I’ve actually had the thought that it was raining on me on purpose, just to spite me, on multiple occasions. It happens. So my first advice is to maybe talk to someone about how you are feeling and work out if there’s something else that’s bothering you and making it harder to deal with the little stuff.
And yeah, I’m sorry I just referred to this as “the little stuff,” and I’m also sorry you wrote this letter to a millennial because I legit, like, totally, don’t think anyone owes you eye contact or a wave when you let them merge. I’m sorry! I just really don’t. We have no way of knowing anything about the lives of the strangers we pass and whether they are having a bad day, or are neurodivergent, or are distracted thinking about something else, or from a culture that doesn’t customarily make eye contact with strangers, or even if they just don’t feel like it. And no one owes anyone to take time out of their day to smile at a stranger. We’re simply not entitled to each other’s time or energy.
Of course it’s nicer when people observe social niceties! I just moved from an apartment building where no one knew each other’s names or said hello in the elevator, into one where everyone is friendly and chats with their neighbors. Of course I like the second one better. But that doesn’t mean that the people in the first building were jerks. The two buildings just have different cultures. Both are fine, and while I prefer the second one, someone who’s a little shyer might prefer the first. Sometimes it’s easier to just work on ourselves accepting that things are the way that they are. Of course it’s nice to work in a friendly workplace where coworkers say “good morning” to each other. But you know what? That’s not in anyone’s job description and they don’t have to do it. If it brings you joy to keep saying it, great! If it bums you out to say it to no response, stop saying it! The easiest thing to adjust here is your own expectations.
You mentioned that when people skip the pleasantries, you feel like a sense of community is lost. But all those empty words provide is a “sense” of community. Maybe what you’re looking for is an actual community? I find it when I’m walking my dog because she’s cute as hell and everyone wants to talk about how cute she is. You might find it by joining a club around a hobby you enjoy, playing a sport, volunteering, or auditioning for a local play. Even just talking to your coworkers about a movie you saw this weekend will probably get more engagement when you greet them in the morning. I know joining a club as a grown-up might sound lame, but you actually meet the coolest people at stuff like that because they are a self-selecting group of people who want to engage.
On the other hand, the thing with your neighbor’s car sucks. And I think it’s actually more of a safety issue than an issue of politeness. And maybe if you treat it that way, you’ll get a better response. What if, you invite your neighbor outside to actually see for themselves how close together the cars are, and therefore how unsafe their parking is? Saying something like, “I’m sure it’s easy to forget, but when you park here you are actually making me unsafe and putting your own car in danger of being damaged. I really don’t want to hit your car, and the best way to make sure that doesn’t happen is you parking it in front of your house.” And I think doing it outside just makes it more of an “event” and easier to remember. Same thing with the girl at Target. If she doesn’t correct your ticket, that’s a huge deal! Don’t pay for anything you didn’t buy! Throw a fit! But if she’s just a little rude while she addresses the issue, maybe just let that go. Rude Target Girl is really not worth you continuing to think about her after you exit the store.
Take care of yourself and choose your battles.
Within the past year, three of my closest friends have gone through separation or divorce with their husbands. Understandably, they are struggling to figure out how to live their new lives as single women in their late-30s/ early-40s, with kids, and exes. It’s scary, confusing, infuriating, and stressful for each of them, and I try my best to be a supportive, understanding, honest friend.
I love these women, and of course conversations will center on what’s going on in their lives, but lately, I’ve been dreading picking up a call or committing to a lunch date with any of them because it’s just too much. It’s all they talk about: the asshole ex, who sometimes isn’t always an asshole, but just the wrong partner; the stress of their kids; the worries of never being able to date again; the fears of starting over. They’re living through this, and it sucks. I pour them wine and buy them massages and watch their kids for a couple hours, and listen and listen and listen and listen… It can be overwhelming. Not only do I never get asked the question, “How are you?” but I’d feel guilty for even bringing myself up. I am still happily married to a wonderful partner and co-parent, and I love my life. Absorbing so much of the misery of my friends makes me feel guilty for my happiness, which doesn’t feel fair. Friendships are about give and take, and I’m running out of give.
Am I a terrible, selfish person for needing a break? Can I detox from my friends’ unhappiness and negativity and still retain the friendships?
I Love Them, But I Love Me More
Dear Me More,
You’re not terrible! We’ve all been there with one friend in our life, but three at once??? That’s insane! There must be something in the water in your town. Stop drinking it. But seriously, have you heard of divorce clustering? You can google it, but basically it means that there is a tendency in a community where one divorce in a group leads to more. Maybe it’s because people will do literally anything that’s trending, maybe it’s because seeing someone survive a divorce let’s you know you that it’s a possibility, but my theory is that maybe it’s because the divorce stress spreads and everyone is slightly more stressed out and starts fighting more. So I guess what I’m saying is, stop hanging out with these ladies if you want to save your marriage.
I kid! But seriously, you gotta take care of yourself. Yes, it sucks that your friends are not asking you how you are doing. But are YOU asking you how you are doing? You are under no obligation to pick up the phone when you don’t want to, or to hang out with people you don’t want to hang out with. Is it amazing that you do those things? Absolutely. Are they requirements? Babe, no. Stop it. It’s important that you take some time yourself, to enjoy your family, and to hang out with some of your other friends who have the bandwidth to have a true “give and take” as you put it, now. Your other friends will be up to that again someday I’m sure, but now is not that time.
That being said, a big part of being in relationships is asking for what we need. If I were you I would first try giving a fun hint towards my needs by being like “Hey girlfriend! You need to take your mind off of Stupid Ex, so today we’re going to a movie, talking about that movie and then we’re going to talk about the things that are going on in my life because you need a break from thinking about him! Yas!” And then when that definitely didn’t work, because it won’t, I’d be honest and say “Hey. I love you and I’m honored that you trust me to be there for you during this difficult time and I know you would do the same for me. But it’s a little bit hard for me that you haven’t asked me about how I’m doing in a while. Normally, that would be part of our relationship and I miss it.” Any one who is a true friend will respond well to that kind of gentle loving constructive criticism. And your relationship will probably get even closer, because that’s what honesty does among friends.
And once your friends are listening to you again, you know, maybe don’t use that opportunity to tell them all about how amazing your loving hubby is. Save that for your friends who are feeling a little stronger at the moment. Actually, save that for your husband. Just tell him how great he is. He’ll love it.
You’re a good friend!
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