What is *wrong* with people?

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I hate myself and think that I’m basically the worst person in the world. Being chronically depressed can be like that.

But even though I hate myself and assume that everyone shares my opinion, I refuse to walk around acting like a total jerk. I may be a total jerk, but where I can, I try not to be. And one area in particular that I try pretty darn hard is in being polite to strangers.

When I was in France in 2010, I learned that it’s considered a major social faux pas if you walk up to a store clerk and just start asking for something without saying “Bonjour” and waiting for them to respond. In other words, you’re supposed to be nice to people, as a rule, and if you can’t be bothered to do that, people will think you’re a rude jerk. Carole and I consistently followed that rule, and we had a wonderful time. I suspect that people who come back from France complaining about snooty Parisians simply took for granted that they can treat people overseas the way they treat people back here at home, namely, like doormats.

I’ve tried to practice the same principle here in the USA. I don’t curse out a barista who screws up my drink. I just smile and wait to get their attention and politely explain. I let strangers merge in in front of me in traffic. I hold doors open for people who are carrying a lot of stuff. When I eat in a restaurant I compulsively clean up after myself, stacking places and silverware and making sure I haven’t left straw wrappers and napkins and bits of food everywhere. I’m nice to my waiter or waitress and don’t make their job harder than it has to be. I don’t assume that a customer service representative on the other end of a phone line is a faceless drone of some kind who exists solely for me to vent my spleen on. When they ask how I am, I cheerfully exclaim something like “I’m livin’ the dream! I’m a Green Mountain Power customer!” Nearly every time, I get told that I’m the first person with a positive/cheerful outlook they’ve talked to all day. And so on, and so on.

I don’t think my trying hard to be polite makes me an awesome guy. I still do a lot of annoying things that I wish I could stop. I talk too much. I think I’m funnier than I really am. I can be absolutely clueless at times. I have a hard time realizing when people don’t want me around. I sometimes have a really bad temper… but even if I’m mad enough to chew nails and spit out thumbtacks, I’d still stop and smile and hold a door open for a stranger and I’d still say “Please” and “Thank you” where appropriate. I’m not going to take out my bad mood on some poor hapless soul just trying to get through their day.

What bothers me is that my point of view is apparently uncommon enough that day after day, people I meet comment on it and act like it’s something unusual. Frankly, that makes me kind of sad. If a jackass like me can generally manage to be halfway nice to people, why can’t the vast majority of humanity?

I’m not asking for compliments here. Really, I’m not. I know this all sounds like a massive #humblebrag post, but that wasn’t my intent. I’m actually curious what other people think. Are people generally jerks as a rule, with some exceptions, or is the answer more that most people aren’t jerks, but the ones who are are such assholes that we tend to remember them and not the ordinary people in the middle of the bell curve?

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One Response to What is *wrong* with people?

  1. Marith says:

    My vote is “neither” 🙂 A certain small percentage of the population are jerks, and indeed they act like small black holes of jerkitude and affect the rest of us negatively more than they should be able to. Most of the rest of us are just trying to get through the day.

    But it’s amazing how much humans can screw up and behave badly without intending to, or even being aware of the effect they had on someone else. I certainly do a lot of it 😛 So when I see someone acting like a jerk I try to remind myself that there are probably many possible reasons.

    The example that comes to my mind right away, because it happens so often, is seeing driver A be rude and angry to driver B for being hesitant or slow, when B is obviously either in unfamiliar territory or very nervous about driving safely. As I sit there behind both of them, I speculate whether:

    1. A is desperately trying to get someplace important where every second counts

    2. A has recently encountered one of the Real Jerks and suffers from a -10 mood penalty until tomorrow or the next time they pet a kitten

    3. A has a migraine or is suffering from some other pain or distress. Chronic pain can make anyone into a surly bastard.

    4. A might be in one of those oblivious states of mind where the world feels a bit like a video game and you forget that it is multiplayer.

    5. A might be a New Yorker and genuinely not realize that honking and yelling things like that about someone’s mother is considered hostile.

    Etc. (If A is driving a BMW, though, I tend to skip the checklist and assume they’re probably a Real Jerk. Which is unfair, and I should try to do better.)

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