Apr 16, 2010

Whatever Happened to Civility?

Last week, during a dip in the temperature, I fell walking to class. It was raining and I was wearing sandals. I was schlepping a bag full of exams, my backpack (with laptop), another bag with my lunchbox in it, a coffee, and, of course, my umbrella. I probably looked like a bag lady, but there I was, crossing the busy intersection on campus, cars stopped waiting for me to pass, and I stepped wrong, my foot flying out in front of me. The umbrella went flying, and I landed on my wrist and hip (amen for cushioned hips). I was laying there, in the middle of the crosswalk, water pouring down on me, skirt soaked through and through, trying to get up while balancing all of my bags.

And not a single person stopped to help me up.

One girl grabbed my umbrella, brought it back, and handed it to me. But the 10 or 15 other people that walked by did just that -- walked by. No one grabbed an arm, offered to help me up, asked me if I was okay, anything. These were, of course, college kids, but I have a question: What the hell happened to manners? Helping the fallen, literally?

I grew up in the Midwest, first in Southern Missouri and then Nebraska. Raised on the Golden Rule, I was raised to respect those around, to help those in need, and to at least try to be civil. I'm known for being insanely apologetic at every turn, especially in grocery stores where I tend to apologize for even walking in the vicinity of someone else, let alone running into them or their cart. Tuvia has been perplexed about my weird, Midwestern mannerisms from square one and a trip to Nebraska last year really sealed the deal for the New Jersey boy on the overly apologetic and polite ways of Midwesterners.

I'll admit, sometimes I miss the polite and simple ways of the Midwest.

The prospect of moving closer to New York City and New Jersey has me excited. After all, I'll be attending the school I've always dreamed of (NYU). Along with that dream was always living in the city, but Tuvia isn't down with in-city living, so we're looking outside the city at modern, Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods with folks our own age. It only hit me last week when I fell, however, that the experience of being ignored and passed by while suffering on a soaking street corner would not improve the closer I move to the city, but instead probably will get considerably worse. Am I ready for that?

Sometimes, I stick out like a sore thumb with my mannerisms. I wear my Nebraska/Missouri heritage with pride, of course, because to most people it's exotic and unique. "There are Jews in Nebraska!?" If I gave most people a map, I doubt they could even find the large, boxy state in the center of the U.S. But where I grew up and how I grew up paved the way for me to be this overly apologetic person, and I'm okay with that. Better to apologize every time I step within a few feet of someone else's cart or come close to brushing a shoulder than to ram into people and go about my business like a shark on a warpath.

The real question becomes: What happens if I someday move to Israel? New Yorkers think they've got attitude, well, they've obviously not experienced the Israeli "force." There is no apologetics or soft, calm demeanors there. Would I crash and burn? Probably. Would it be worth standing out and saying "slicha!" every five seconds? You bet your tush it would be.

So listen, when you walk by someone on the street or in a store, and they look like they need help, offer it. If they refuse or act embarrassed by your offer, it's their problem, not your's. Do a mitzvah, help someone out, pretend you're me for a day. Slap on that Midwestern charm and make someone's day.


Dr. Rona Michelson said...

Israel will surprise you. Not only would they pick up your things and help you up, but someone would be buying you a cup of tea too. I have heard dozens of such stories. People here really do care about each other. Now politeness....

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Rona Okay, yes, you ARE right about that. I'll admit, there is a sense of kinship in Israel that I don't see elsewhere. But the politeness, yes, that does get a "dot dot dot" :D

Mordechai Y. Scher said...

That's what is so interesting and deep about Israel. Considerate and rude in the same moment is not a simple thing, you know. Sort of like King David's 'adino ha-etzni' revealed both at the same time!

Karen Zampa Katz said...

New York isn't that bad!
(lol) Don’t believe the press about New York!…. Yes it can be a big and scary place…but really it is just as provincial as almost any other place I have lived…and I have moved about a bit! Every neighborhood has its own feeling and flavor! I live in the serious suburbs, but feel ok in most places in Manhattan and Brooklyn that I have traveled to…I have seen strangers fight and yell and almost kill one another…but I have also seen strangers/passersbys help one another and be “Midwestern” in nature……you will be fine…..

Karen Zampa Katz said...

oh by the way...I used to work with a young MO womaen who got married and went through the "where will we live" thing with her...there are nice communites all about, but truly consider the comute!...before you pick try it out.....the NJ comute is not easy.....it could involve multiple trains...even a bus depending on where you go....there are some young communities in Queens, ( that is where my co-worker wnet to live) I know city isn't what your looking for...but the Riverside area is nice and has a wonderful MO community there.....

but the main point of this is the comute issue......it realy can be a serious drag on a life!

good luck

Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

@Rachel Believe me, I know. I lived in North Chicago and worked at the U of Chicago in South Chicago :) I spent 1.5 hours (at least) each way every day on multiple trains/buses. It killed me.

The upside? I got plenty done!

shualah elisheva said...

not just the midwest - texas has some modicum of civility!

Anonymous said...

I lived in NYC during the blackout in 2003. I remember walking with strangers and sharing cases of water as we walked miles in the boiling heat of the summer. There was a sense of community.

I also, on that same day, saw people push an old man to the ground and no one daring to help him. I ran to the head of the bus yard who just grumbled about something and waved over a police officer.

If I had seen you fall, I would have helped you up. There are good and bad people everywhere.

Manners just don't matter much anymore.

TMC said...

Two words C:

wheelie backpack

I'm glad you weren't seriously hurt.

D said...

For me, personally, I have found that no matte the location (Coastal, Midwestern, or elsewhere) people are less likely to be kind unto others when the weather is inclement. While I think those from more urban environments have a certain form of conditioning that might make it easier to ignore those around one, the weather certainly has an impact on behavior. I am glad that you were not greatly harmed, but I think it is something that any urbanite has to come to accept (one need only look at the case of Kitty Genovese to see just how one can become conditioned to ignore others in urban settings.) Perhaps this is me being bitter and cynical, but I'm just telling it as I have experienced it.

Suburban Sweetheart said...

AMEN. Southern hospitality's got nothing on Midwestern kindness.

Anonymous said...

Meh. It's a similar story here in the UK. I was born in the Midlands (clue, it's the middle of the country!) and a goodly chunk of my family are in the North of England. Manners, friendliness, taking time for people, being polite - I was brought up with all of those and also enjoyed living in a friendly environment too.

Then, after some moving around, I lived and worked in London for several years. Manners? Acknowledging people? Friendliness? Eye contact? Not so much...

Now I live on the south coast - and the difference is amazing. Much more friendly, less selfish and self-centred. Like it used to be in my formative years. I still work in London, but luckily in a friendly, courteous environment. it's much better.

I hope you're feeling ok, not too bruised and shaken.

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