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Good Manners Can Let You Walk Away

A few days ago, I was stopped at a four-way intersection in San Francisco.  The driver of the car directly across from me had his left blinker on, but then put his arm out of the window to make a circular motion.  I nodded and waved back to him, then waited until he safely completed his turn before I entered the intersection.  A little ahead of me, he stuck his arm out of his window again and waved.

That other driver and I had an entire conversation without words, all using good manners.  He told me that he understood a U-turn wasn't allowed there but for whatever reason he wanted to make one anyway and would I please give him the time to do so.  I answered that I understood and that of course it was alright, I was in no hurry, he could go ahead and take his time to make his desired turn safely.  After all that was done and we were both heading up the same street, he waved his thanks.

Good manners are for society what the oil is in our car engines: they keep things cool, keep people from overheating.  Good manners allow for almost instantaneous communication based on a shared system of words and gestures and behaviors.  Bad manners, on the other hand, are the sugar in society's gas tank: they cause things to stop working but good.  Bad manners tell those around the ill-mannered people that those people think little of them, think themselves more important, doesn't care enough about others around them. 

The more closely we live together, the more important are good manners to allow us to function and the more detrimental are bad manners.  Japan is a very densely populated country: half the population of the United States lives in a country the geographic size of California, and of that country, only a limited amount of land is habitable because of mountainous terrain.  As a result, the Japanese have an elaborate system of manners; otherwise, people would be slaughtering each other from tension and misunderstandings.

The past ten years, I've had jobs where I was able to commute to work by a combination of buses and walking.  Sharing those commutes and those walks gave me a good chance to observe manners, both good and bad, in action.  There's an entire system of etiquette for riding buses.  When all observe the unwritten rules, all have a pleasant trip and disembark at their destination unstressed.  When someone violates those rules, either through mental illness or substance abuse or just plain old bad manners, the difference on the bus is palpable--people shift uneasily in their seats, look around at each other, and sometimes get off the bus earlier than planned.

There's an etiquette to walking, too.  I've noticed that women automatically smile at each other when passing each other on the street.  It seems to be the equivalent of rolling over and baring our stomachs to the alpha dog: we're signalling that we aren't a threat, we have no hostile intent, we're just walking along.  The smiles are so automatic and so pervasive among women that I wonder if they're not hardwired in.  Men, while walking, will smile at women passing them in the other direction, but not nearly so often and not nearly so automatically.  They return smiles rather than smile first, and when passing another man, frequently there are no smiles exchanged but instead there are evaluating glances to determine if the man approaching is a threat or not.

All of that is in ordinary neighborhoods, neighborhoods where it can be ordinarily assumed that the others living there don't pose threats to those in their vicinity.  This system of assuming non-hostile intent breaks down in neighborhoods like the one KidThree comes from.

In those neighborhoods, people do not automatically smile at each other when passing each other on the street.  Each person sizes up the other, searches for signs of recognition or at least similarities, and assumes the other is a threat if no positive clues are received.  There are still manners, but frequently with a twist.  Respect for one another is not something granted until it is shown to be undeserved, it isn't granted until it's shown to be earned.  Younger women approaching each other respond in a more masculine way, not able to assume that another woman approaching isn't a threat.

KidThree is in a wheelchair today because she got caught up in a situation where bad manners escalated into bad behavior that in turn escalated to criminal behavior.  At so many points along that timeline, the judicious use of good manners instead of bad could have stopped the progression, but good manners as understood by those in the altercation weren't brought into play when needed.

The first instance of bad manners occurred when a girl argued with her boyfriend on the street.  This relatively small violation of good manners, that she should have kept the argument private, triggered what followed.  The boyfriend didn't retaliate in kind, he walked away.  But, the argument between the two had caught the attention of onlookers in a nearby yard, onlookers whose judgment was impaired by drug use.  Again, in a violation of etiquette, the onlookers began harassing the girl and, when she responded, turned a hose on her and then went inside the house.

The girl's next action was an enormous violation of neighborhood mores--she took a stick of some sort and went to bang on the door of that house.  If the house had belonged to the harassing onlookers, that assault on the door would not have been such a incendiary thing, but the home belonged to a grandmother of one of the onlookers.  By banging on that door with a stick, the girl was blatantly, provocatively violating one of the most important of rules: she was disrespecting someone's grandmother.

***In an episode of "The Wire," Omar, a drug dealer, was shot at on a Sunday morning while escorting his grandmother to church.  Societal mores included a Sunday moratorium on hostilities, and DEMANDED respect for the elderly, so those who shot at Omar and his grandmother came under fire from both those on their own side (how could they shoot when they saw the grandmother was there?!?) and from Omar.  It just wasn't (and isn't) done to disrespect the elderly, especially grandmothers, who were (are) sacrosanct.

All the events that followed in the gang altercation that resulted in KidThree's being shot and paralyzed resulted directly from that assault on the grandmother's door.  The other violations of neighborhood etiquette were annoying and led to trouble but would not have led to violence, but the violation against the rule demanding respect for grandmothers was so egregious, it set off a conflagration.  The young people in the home poured out, the girl called her brothers for back-up, the brothers arrived armed, those in the home got a weapon, and gunfire was exchanged.  KidThree wasn't involved in that aspect of the fight, she was standing by with a friend, but that didn't matter to the bullet--it hit her just the same and left her paralyzed just the same. 

Bad manners suck.


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Important post...

What happens if someone violates custom in Kid Three's former neighborhood and goes through the streets smiling and speaking to strangers? Is that dangerous?

I tried to teach students we need to SEE each other. I encouraged them to speak to strangers in the college hallways--when they could. I loved the encounter and nonverbal communication you and the other driver had. Each of you received health-giving chemicals in your system from that encounter. Some of us readers may have received a nice chemo infusion from just reading about it.

Too much polite ignoring of others in crowded streets is not always a good thing. After no one came to the aid of that girl on a city street (forgot her name and did not think I ever would), people were upset and someone created a research project. That research indicated that the larger the crowd, the less likely anyone would do anything--each person expected someone else would call for help. For safety sake and for emotional health, people need people.

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In KidThree's former

In KidThree's former neighborhood, smiling (or worse, looking in the eye) those you pass could very well be dangerous, depending on the age and sex of each party. Murders do happen because of the murderer's perception of a 'look' from the victim. It's a complete switch from the "be careful but assume kind intentions until proven otherwise" to "be careful and assume hostile intent until proven otherwise."
Since getting a cell phone, I've occasionally called emergency services re: impaired drivers, roadside fires, etc., and most of the time the emergency personnel are already aware of whatever it is, but last week we were the first reporters of a small fire in the gore point at a freeway onramp. Better to call and be the thousandth reporter than have emergency services unaware. Susan