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Recently three people were rude to me in as many hours. First a bank teller shrugged and snapped her gum when I asked why she put a hold on my paycheck. Then a teenager whizzed by on a skateboard and nearly knocked me flat. Finally, at lunch, the waitress forgot my order; after I reminded her, she brought me cold soup and shoved it in front of me without a word. I'm no doormat, so naturally I let these people have it. But when I saw the rude waitress stomp into the kitchen to tear into the cook, I instantly regretted my bad temper. She'd been dissed by me, so now she was setting out to do exactly the same thing to someone else.
I thought of my British grandmother, who knew how to pour a proper tea and schooled me in the power of good manners early on. When faced with a rude salesclerk, for instance, Grandmother was apt to pat the woman's arm, compliment her sweater, and apologize for bothering her -- which inevitably led the salesclerk to scurry off to find whatever item my grandmother required, pronto. Grandmother would never have gone off on the waitress the way I did. Instead, she would have sweetly asked her to reheat her soup because it was so delicious that she wanted to savor every sip.
"You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," Grandmother always said. As I listened to the muffled shouting coming from the restaurant kitchen, I wondered if it was really true. I would try it, I decided: For one full week I would make a point of remembering my manners, especially with people who seemed determined to make me forget them. I would attempt to disarm with charm -- and see if my suddenly improved attitude would have any effect.
I never want to go to our local post office. It always has long lines and, to make matters worse, there's a belligerent clerk who works there. Sure enough, while I'm waiting, I overhear her barking at a customer. Then it's my turn. I gather my courage and step up to the counter. "Hi," I say in my most pleasant voice. "How are you?"
She scowls. Clearly I've already overstepped her boundaries. I persist in my politeness experiment, scanning the dog photos taped to the wall beside her. "Is that your dog?" I ask sweetly as she weighs my package.
To my surprise, the clerk tells me her dog is a Hurricane Katrina rescue. "He had to have surgery to repair his hip, but he's doing great now," she says. And then the real shocker: She breaks into a wide smile.
The transformation is amazing -- and all it took was one polite question that acknowledged her as an individual. Score one for Grandmother's advice.
The afterglow of this first encounter lingers until I'm driving home and a driver cuts me off at an intersection. Experiment forgotten, I honk my horn.
I'm running errands downtown when I notice that the car is making a sound like a spatula slapping a counter. I get out, look at the flat tire, sigh, and drive to a nearby gas station. The mechanic says he'll have it fixed in an hour.
When I call back an hour later, the mechanic admits that he hasn't touched my car because he's been swamped all morning long. I feel my blood start to boil. I should have called AAA, I think, instead of trusting this idiot. I could've arranged for someone else to pick my son up from school if I'd known it was going to take this long. I'm about to launch into a rant when I take a deep breath and change tactics. "I'm sorry you're having a crazy day," I tell the mechanic. "I hate to rush you. I apologize. It's fine, really. I can call around and get a friend to pick up my son from school. When do you think I might be able to get the car?"
There's a brief silence. Then he says he'll put my car on the lift right away. "I'll have it done in 20 minutes," he promises. "I'm sorry you had to wait."
He hangs up. I sit and study my cell phone, stunned. Was this an accident or are good manners contagious?
It's the end of a long day and I have one more stop to make, at the dry cleaner. This requires a left turn across oncoming traffic, which is backed up from the stoplight, as it always is, and drivers in idling cars are blocking the entrance to the lot where I need to park. I don't blow my horn, though. I just sit there.
And then a funny thing happens: First, a driver pulls up to leave almost enough room for me to enter the parking lot. After that not just one but two drivers back up so I can make my left turn. And all of them are smiling! I smile, wave, smile, wave. All of them wave back! Is this manners karma or what?
At a meeting, a surly colleague is clearly upset that nobody read his report. I apologize profusely for not getting it done and tell him that I know how frustrated he must feel. The man visibly melts.
After the meeting he explains how hard he worked on the report and confesses that he doesn't think he's a very good writer. He tells me that he worries that maybe that's why nobody reads his stuff, even though writing for a living has always been his dream.
He looks slightly abashed as he adds, "I write poetry."
Suddenly I can see this man for who he really is: a wannabe poet. And the truth is that his reports are chock-full of important information, even if they are a little dull. My heart goes out to him and I try to think what might help.
"Without your reports nobody would know what's going on," I tell him. "They're important. It's just too bad that we're all so overwhelmed these days, isn't it?" He agrees. We end by shaking hands. "Keep writing your poetry," I add. He brightens. "Thanks," he says. I watch him walk away, wondering about all of the other secret lives around me that a little politeness might bring into view.
A solicitor for a charity calls as our family sits down to eat dinner. Generally I bark at these people to take us off their call lists and I slam down the receiver before they can even start to reply. But this night I say, "Thank you for doing the hard work of raising money for such a good cause."
The caller falls silent, momentarily derailed. She thinks I'm yanking her chain. I keep talking. "I'd like to contribute but right now I have four kids in college. If I can make the next tuition payments, I promise that you'll be the first in line for a donation. I really do appreciate your efforts."
The caller sputters, then says, "Oh. Well, thank you. Have a good night."
"You too," I say.
The conversation only took 30 seconds longer than my usual hang-up, but I went back to my family dinner feeling all zen instead of irritated.
I enter a store where I have to return something without a receipt. The clerk is standing beneath a sign that reads "No Receipt No Return." I notice her necklace as I approach. She raises her hand and touches it, noticing me noticing it. The necklace is a Celtic cross with silver twigs wound together. "I love that necklace," I comment as I approach the counter. Then I tell her about my dilemma: "I'm afraid I bought these pants without trying them on," I say, "and it turns out they don't work at all. Could I please exchange them?" When she smiles and says yes, I make another note to self: People really do warm to you when you notice them and appreciate their efforts, whether they're changing a tire or wearing something special. As I leave the store I feel surprisingly serene. Being mannerly may be the right thing to do, but it's also a surefire way to feel better about yourself. I never realized how horrible I felt about being rude until I stopped.
On the last day of my experiment I head out to my local coffeehouse. This Starbucks is a battleground: Virtual office workers with laptops constantly vie for the best tables. They set up like squatters, buying office space for the price of a latte. I know this because I'm one of them.
I score a much-coveted piece of real estate -- a central table away from the chilly door. I spread out my papers and sip my tea, happy and warm. Then two women loaded down with shopping bags come in and search the place. There are no tables left, alas, just the counter. And I wonder: Is it good manners to offer them my seat, even if they're just shopping and I really am working? I ponder this for a split second. Or would that be a selfless act that I'll soon resent?
The only way to find out is to do it: "Why don't you take my table and I'll move to the counter," I say. The women are startled. They protest, uncertain, casting their eyes about the room for another option. There isn't any. Finally they acquiesce. I move to the counter, which, as I suspected, is too narrow to work on, though I manage.
Ten minutes later someone gently taps me on the shoulder. It's one of the women. The other one has snagged the only free window table and is holding it for me.
"We thought you should have it because you're so nice," they say -- and we're all smiling.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2010.