The Human Condition:

Keeping an Even Temper – June 3, 2018

Roman mask

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s the place I live, the San Francisco Bay Area. But it seems that too many of the people I meet publicly these days are innately hostile. Like a case of walking road rage. You smile at them and get a glare or a blank stare in return. You ask a question, and you get a reply that is either tinged with scorn—like “Shouldn’t you already know the answer?”—or cold indifference—like “Why don’t you just go jump off the Earth?”

Were people always this rude? I don’t remember this kind of reaction when I was growing up in the East. Sure, some people are grumpy—some of them perpetually. And some people are too busy to talk or pay attention to those around them. That’s always been true. But it seems more and more people in society today are either aggrieved or battened down. It seems as if the social glue that holds us all together has dried out.

If the problem is the place I live, then I have a counter example. Some years ago, we traveled to Austin, Texas, to visit friends. In our journeys around town and across the state to see various sights and attractions, I encountered a pretty good slice of average Texans. I remember seeing and noting many more smiles, friendly greetings, and cordial responses than I’d been getting in California lately. As one example, I was turning a corner in the corridor to the men’s room in one museum and almost collided with an older man, a short fellow half my size wearing a business suit and a Stetson hat. As we mutually retreated, he tilted his head back and said in the cheeriest way, “Howdy!”1

If that had been in San Francisco or Oakland, he would have pushed past me and growled, “Get the [expletive] out of my way!” When I first came to Berkeley, forty years ago, I was standing in line at the cash register in a stationery store. The woman ahead of me completed her purchase, turned quickly, was surprised to find me there, and said, “What are you doing here? You’re blocking my way. Get out!” Yes, ma’am, right away, and sorry to be breathing your air.

This was not how I and my brother—and my spiritual sisters and my cousins, whom I reckon up by dozens—were brought up. My mother was constantly telling us to put a smile on our faces, and not just so that we would be pleasanter company around the house. We were supposed to be nice to the people we meet, nod to the people we know, hold doors for the people coming behind us, pick up our own litter and sometimes that of other people and go find a trash can, and answer respectfully and cheerfully when asked a question.

Being polite is not just good manners but a survival strategy. If you meet the world with a frown or a glare, you’re going to attract the attention of psychopaths. It’s just not healthy living in a state that perpetually provokes people. Incidents of road rage—even of the walking variety—begin with the first honk, the first snarl, the first rude gesture.

I’m also surprised at how casually these people will disrespect me. I stand six foot six and broad in proportion, usually move briskly about my business, and am not apparently decrepit—or not yet anyway. I try not to be menacing in my demeanor, appearance, and body language, consciously do not invade other people’s personal space, and back off a step in any encounter just to be polite. A sensible person could see that I am a healthy male who outweighs them, has a longer reach with more leverage, and could mow them down in any physical clash.2 And yet many smaller, weaker, less equipped people mouth off to a man my size as if they were surrounded by the invisible force field of protection that once was provided by the decorous traditions of a Western civilization in which they apparently no longer believe.

As a result, I walk around with a fixed, sometimes slightly dazed, smile on my face that is only beginning to crack at the corners. And still, as I encounter people out on the street, I am prepared for the next rude look or snarling reply. I am not really happy about it.

There is an art in this world that has to do with empathy, with taking the other person’s views and feelings into account, considering their own situation, and trying not to make them feel bad. Not make them look and feel like fools. My mother taught me this as a kind of protective coloration. “If you don’t move your hand as if you were striking at the dog, you’re less likely to get nipped,” she would say. She taught the art of moving through the world without riling people and attracting the psychopaths you might encounter.

It’s also a better way to get what you want. During forty years in businesses ranging from publishing to engineering, a public utility, and various biotech companies, I saw enough people fail to accomplish their mission and goals, who got their proposals crushed and saw their days go wrong, because they met the world, and the people whose cooperation they needed, with a hard word and the presumption that they were going to be dealing with fools.

Being polite and friendly and perhaps cracking a smile and a joke—“Howdy!”—also gets you better service in restaurants and other retail encounters. I makes other people, unless they are snarling under their own dark cloud, want to do the little bit extra that makes for good, friction-free exchanges.

Perhaps these angry people feel entitled. Many in the Bay Area do, because after all we live in Nirvana, the utopia that is now, and the utopia that is yet to come. Our views are correct, our politics impeccable, and our lifestyle and livelihoods sustainable. Or perhaps these people have had their expectations crushed once too often in this best of all possible worlds. And maybe they are just perpetually grumpy and busy.

But I would share with them my mother’s secret of keeping an even temper, putting a smile on their faces, meeting the world halfway, and taking a moment to make the other person around them feel good.

1. I also remember seeing little blue signs along the Texas highways: “Drive friendly.” For whatever reason, that makes me feel good inside.

2. Well, at the age of seventy, I probably still could, being an old black belt who runs through the karate katas every other morning as a form of exercise (see Isshinryu Karate). I would take my licks in a fight against a younger man with any street experience, but I am not exactly feeble or undangerous myself.