I had an interesting conversation the other day. My mother had just flown in from Texas and she was regaling me with stories of navigating the airport with carry-on luggage and a broken hand.
While she was riding the tram, she noticed another woman with too much stuff to carry and an arm in a cast. As they exited the train together, my mom gave her a cast salute and said something like “It’s tough with only one hand, isn’t it?” to which the woman replied “I know. And no one will help me,” and they parted ways.
Now here’s where it got interesting (to me at least). My mother thought her attitude was silly, you shouldn’t expect help if you don’t ask for it. I thought the other train passengers had been kind of rude not to offer.
Both are valid opinions. It is silly to expect that strangers will jump to your aid if you just stand around looking pitiful. They might not realize that you need help, since they don’t live in your head. Or they might not want to insult you by implying that you are less than able to do something yourself. It isn’t that hard to turn to someone and say “I’m sorry, would you mind holding this for a minute? I’m having a little trouble here.” Most people would have no trouble agreeing to help.
On the other hand, if you were raised to be the type of person who gives up their bus seat to someone who needs it more, you sort of feel like the contract should go both ways when you are the one in need. I still remember explaining the ‘rules’ to me the first time we rode the bus together. If there are no more seats, you offer yours to the elderly, pregnant women and injured people. Hopefully not all at once. I’ve been pregnant twice, and I joined the ranks of the injured for a while a few years ago. During those times I was on the receiving end of a number of random acts of kindness. I’m not trying to say that there are no courteous people out there. However, I can remember a few occasions where I ended up silently screaming “Holy crap people, can you not see that I need help here?”
I don’t think I ever felt entitled to help, and I would have asked for it had I been able. But have you ever been in so much pain and so frustrated that your brain is incapable of remembering the steps involved in politely asking for assistance? I think that’s why we had rules of courtesy, so that everyone knew what roles they should play.
I think the issue stems from the fact that we have come to value independence over etiquette. If a young man offers his seat to an older lady, there is the possibility that she will yell at him for thinking that she is too old and feeble to stand. If an older gentleman holds a door for a lady, she might turn out to be a cranky feminist who will be irritated by the gesture. Maybe the problem isn’t that people are forgetting how to make a courteous gesture, we’re just forgetting how to accept a courtesy gracefully.
I don’t know. I don’t want this to sound like a “What’s the matter with kids these days” thing. There are a lot of kind people out there, of all ages. I just feel like etiquette has fallen into a grey area and I want to know where other people stand.
So how about it? Any thoughts?