I was in a line to purchase produce at the market the other day. Ahead of me was a tourist couple (who didn’t purchase anything) questioning the salesclerk about the Eastern Shore. They were unconcerned about the line that was swelling behind them.
To address the long line of customers, the salesclerk began servicing the customers while continuing to talk to the couple. The couple was clearly annoyed and glared at each customer. In their definition of rude, they had been interrupted.
On the other hand, the customers viewed the couple as rude because they continued to probe for more information despite the line of customers.
And the salesclerk was trying to negotiate the differences in “rudeness.”
I reflected on what rudeness really is.
Some rudeness is direct and intentional. For example, the cruel comments that you see on the Internet, or direct disrespect by refusing to recognize anyone’s needs but one’s own.
But often, rudeness is inadvertent and just based on perspective. Many of our definitions of rude come down to our needs not being met due to someone else’s behavior. Often it involves time. The couple holding up the line were wasting our time. The customers were wasting that couple’s time. People who drive too slowly, people who hold up a line, when you think about it, a lot of it is just time.
We often attribute rudeness to those who prevent us from getting what we want. For example, the person ahead of you buying all of the tomatoes, someone who cuts in front of a line, someone in a line talking on their cellphone or other multitasking so that the clerk must wait.
Rudeness is often community-defined. For example, having lived Northeast and now in the more Southern Eastern Shore, I find there are large differences between these communities. In the Northeast, time is precious. In the South, relationship or connection is more important. I used to say that 20 people ahead of me in line in NYC takes the same amount of time as one person ahead of me in the South. In the northeast, it is transactional, so the quicker the better. In more rural areas, it is connection, so time has less value.
Communities also exist within families and cultural groups; and rudeness is defined by the norms of the community. Since America has multi-cultural roots, it is easy to be inadvertently rude. A simple example is attending churches and synagogues, in some being late is acceptable, in others it is rude.
Families have their own codes as well. In large and boisterous families, interrupting is the way to get your point across. In smaller, more discrete families, it is rude.
Rude really gets crazy when dealing with international cultures. It takes research to avoid inadvertent rudeness. For example, table manners. In some countries, leaving food on the plate is rude; in other countries it is rude not to.
I remember dining at a Korean friend’s house, and as I quickly began devouring the incredibly delicious food, I glanced over at her. Too late, I realized that she was eating her meal slowly and carefully, maintaining the relative portions and the appearance of the food on the plate, my messy plate was both embarrassing (and inadvertently rude).
In Chile, all food except bread must be eaten with silverware. In Norway, even sandwiches are eaten with a knife and fork. Parts of India and the Middle East use their right hands to eat food. In some parts of China and Japan, slurping is considered a compliment.
Punctuality rules are also unique to each country and community. How to make life hard for a hostess in America? Arrive early to a dinner party.
But my favorite custom came from a colleague who emigrated from Iran. You explained that in her community, it is polite to invite the hostess (or person you are talking to) to your home for dinner the next weekend. But she explained that the invitation isn’t sincere, it is simply a gesture to show how much you enjoyed their company. So, I asked her how do you know if an invitation is genuine? She said you can just tell.
I continued, “What would happen if someone appeared at that person’s house for dinner (thinking that it was a sincere invitation)?“
“Oh, that would be rude,” she explained.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.