I believe in being polite to strangers.
Once I was on an airplane, just settling in to read a book until I fell asleep, when my neighbor began an unsolicited conversation. She was a woman of about sixty-five, and her appearance and manner of speech suggested that I would not enjoy a conversation with her. Her speech was too warm, too familiar at our discourse’s start; it suggested that—as many others—she had projected a “likely” personality onto me. From past experience I knew that any attempts to rectify her misunderstanding would lead to awkward confrontation.
Therefore, I persisted in making a normal conversation; and more than simply answering her undirected questions and smiling ingratiatingly, I began to proffer her with my own. I was polite out of dreary spite—it seems my desire to sleep was strong that day.
But as we talked, it was revealed that I bore a resemblance to her grandson, who had recently been killed in a drunk-driving accident. That I reminded her of him may or may not have been true, but her saying so put me in a compounded awkward position, and one that she did not immediately excuse me from. Most of the time, the imposer of such a comparison would recognize the uneasiness of the person being observed. But instead of apologizing or undermining the seriousness of her comparison, as a person who still wanted to live might have done, she simply let the statement hang: “You are about his age, if he were still alive. You look a lot like him.”
The sustained conversational pressure forced me to make a decision: could I still resent her? It was a theoretical impasse. The death of her son was unfortunate, unnecessary, even tragic, but it didn’t endear me to her at all. Bad things happen to all kinds of people, after all, and the misfortunes of a person’s life should not make them any more virtuous. Ultimately I found that there was no reason to dislike her, but at the same time there was no reason to empathize with her either. So while my hostility to this nap-blocking woman had dissipated, more than anything I was simply glad that she had not seen my nonsensical resentment. What point is there in worsening the existing human condition?
Now I am polite to all strangers, no matter how strange their appearance. It is a simple way to deal with simple people.
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