A Matter of Manners
Are we becoming more polite?
jason raish illustration
I pulled up at my local gas station in Mid-City one day recently when I came upon a woman in distress. Well, actually, she just needed air in her tires.
She was youngish – late 20s, maybe early 30s – a thoroughly modern woman, no doubt, dressed in business attire, hunched over with the air hose. When I got out of my car, I asked if she needed any help. She was dressed nice and I wasn’t, and tire maintenance can be dirty business.
Without rising from her hunched position, she shot me a venomous glance and hissed: “How hard does this look?”
She really said that.
I continued on, abashedly. And I felt a bit of a jerk. Did I insult her? Had I, in that instant, presented myself as a forbear of the oppressive patriarchal hierarchy which has kept independent women down for so many years, decades and centuries?
F---- that, I thought. I was just trying to be nice.
I recount that story to point out what I believe is more of an anomaly than a symptom of prevailing winds in our city these days. In fact, dare I suggest: New Orleans is actually more polite than it used to be?
Call me crazy.
The woman at the gas station was obviously not having a good moment. But I also don’t think her behavior was indicative of the way folks treat each other around here these days. At least, in our normal, day-to-day interactions with strangers.
In what I understand is anything but scientific proof, I offer the following anecdotal examples as evidence of kinder, more cooperative culture in our beloved Crescent City.
First, the Lafitte Greenway. The strip of public parkway that stretches from Tremé to the border of City Park is a civic wonder, a great place to see, smell and feel the city. And at the intersections where it crosses major throughways there have appeared signs in recent months directing drivers to yield to bicyclists and pedestrians.
Now, any New Orleanian knows that “yield” isn’t part of the vocabulary of our local motorist culture. But here’s the thing: I live by the Greenway and have marveled in recent weeks at how many drivers are, in fact, yielding to bicyclists and pedestrians. I see it every day.
It is really happening, people! I am not making this up.
Then there’s this: Over the years I developed a sublimely passive-aggressive response to folks who walk through a door which I have held open for them – without they’re saying thank you or at least acknowledging my effort.
As they walk past me, I whisper – “hiss” is probably more accurate – “You’re welcome!” into their ear when they brush past me.
Infantile behavior, I admit, but it works as a wonderful salve for wounded manners. But here’s the point: That almost never happens anymore. I haven’t hissed at a stranger in months. People in New Orleans are saying ... “thank you.”
Then there’s the traffic construction thing. It is like that proverb: Be careful what you wish for. For 30 years we’ve been wishing the city would fix its streets. And they finally decided to do so. All at the same time.
You would think this would be cause for an epidemic of road rage, but I have experienced the exact opposite: People waving their hands for me to cut ahead of them in traffic. In New Orleans!
There are other signs to inform me of this opinion. Am I correct in suggesting that there is less litter on the streets – in parks and at bus stops – than in years and decades past? Or am I just wearing, as the saying goes, rose colored glasses?
People in line at the bank these days seem civil if not downright congenial. At the Rouses the other day a guy with about 20 items in his cart waved me ahead because I had only a loaf of bread and some onions.
Maybe it’s because our national political discourse has become so coarse that we’re finding our inherent civility on a micro level – at corner stores and city intersections.
None of this is to suggest that New Orleanians in the past have been particularly rude, but anyone who lives here knows: Sometimes our public manners can be decidedly – What is it the kids say these days? – unchill.
The point is: Everybody just keep doing what you’re doing.
It is working. It is, as the saying goes, “yielding” great benefits.
And you’re welcome.