Sunday, June 10, 2007


This is my July column for Temple City Life, the local news monthly I write for.


One of the least endearing (translation: too much like a Saturday morning cartoon) characters in the Star Wars epic is Jar Jar Binks, who seems a cross between a vaudeville comic and a tall frog. Jar Jar's verbal ticks includes the inability to pronounce words with the letter R. So at one point he protests the bad behavior of another by indignantly saying, “How wude!”

I was thinking about rudeness recently because of an experience I had—setting up our daughter at college in central Florida. We spent several days there in May and one night over dinner I asked her what her impression of Florida was. “A lot like California,” she said. “Only less rude.”

It was undeniable. People smiled and waved more. They waved you through when making a turn. Sales people in stores were more helpful. I wonder why?

Some people would say, well, that's just the way Southerners are. And there's something to that. Some of the nicest people in the world are from the South. But why aren't people from Boston or Minnesota also known as nice? How did that happen?

As I said, I was thinking about this and realized that big urban areas tend to encourage rudeness. Los Angeles County has the same population as Michigan in a fraction of the area. In a densely populated area, the chances of meeting the same person at random is fairly low. So we can indulge our worse nature with a fairly low chance of having to pay for it sometime down the road.

Go to the other extreme: a small town of a few thousand in Kentucky or Idaho. Chronic rudeness gets you a community-wide reputation pretty quickly. There really are few secrets in small towns, and that's a good thing. That kind of transparency encourages us to good behavior.

Bill Cosby likes to remind us that when he was growing up, even in his Philadelphia neighborhood, that if he misbehaved in the street, there was always an adult nearby who could say, “Boy, I know where you like and I know your parents.” That accountability encourages the best from us.

So, sorry to say, I had the same impression my daughter did about Winter Park, Florida. People were just nicer. And it did remind me of California: palm trees, warm weather, and a salsa-flavored population. But they were just nicer.

So how do we import some Florida niceness to Temple City? I have three simple suggestions: look around, be accountable and look up.

By look around, I mean just because we live with so many people and maybe we can get away with rudeness doesn't mean we ought to. The Golden Rule applies despite any population trend. “Treat other people the way you want to be treated” is always applicable.

By be accountable, I mean the fact that a lot of rudeness loses its grip when we have a community that we will have to face. We have a lot of distinct ethnic segments in Temple City, and its easy to hide within our segment and in effect ignore people with limited English skills, or, if we're part of the immigrant community, it's also easy to stick with “our own” and pretty much ignore the native-born people. To both, I say, “How wude!” It's rude to ignore someone—just as rude as being mean or short-tempered.

As a Christian pastor, one of the transforming things I've seen again and again is a person who's led a relatively isolated life who comes into the church. Over the course of months, it's fascinating—and delightful—to watch them change and connect up with others on a level they never dreamed possible. Part of that connection is a discovery of the positive power of accountability.

Finally, look up. There's an old story—from the South, “I reckon”--about a father and son team of thieves. The father decided to make off with some melons at harvest time and posted his ten-year-old as his look-out. When he had his sack full, he asked the boy, “Anyone to the north?” The answer: “No, pa.” “South?” “No, pa.” “East?” “No, pa.” “West?” “No, pa.” “OK” says the dad. “Let's go.” The boy answered, “You forgot one direction. Up. And ma says God sees us.”

Sure, you could get away with being rude. You can get away with a lot—if you only care about the points of the compass. Look up as well. Don't be “wude”; nice never hurt anybody, did it?

No comments: