Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Do NOT anger the badger. 14.08.13

 "Rudeness is the weak man's imitation of strength." 
Eric Hoffer

Once upon a time, I went into a shoe shop with a friend – don’t worry, we’ll get to the controversial, angst-ridden, violent bit in a moment.  I am hardly fashion conscious but I have to wear decent anti-pronation shoes, so I went to a decent shoe shop.  I was wearing my normal clothes, which were neither posh nor scuzzy.  I politely made my request to one of the ladies serving.  She looked me up and down, pulled a face, crossed her arms and sneered: “I don’t think you are in the right shop.  All the shoes here are EXPENSIVE.”

My friend’s jaw hit the ground.  She turned and looked at me in horror.  I blinked a couple of times, smiled and replied, loudly enough for her nearby boss to hear: “well, if you’re telling me that you overcharge here, I best go elsewhere.  Thank you.”  I walked out while the assistant was still flapping and stuttering apologies.

My friend was shocked, aghast, confounded and near traumatised.  She just couldn’t shake the event off, nor could she stop going on about it.  She was nearly as shocked by my lack of reaction.  Me, I couldn’t care less.  We experienced the same event, but its description in our internal dialogues diverged completely.  She saw me being “humiliated in public”.  I thought ok, so I got snubbed by a snob; big deal.  So a little person needed to make herself feel bigger by trying to insult me; big deal.  So someone got up on the wrong side of the bed, or the wrong day of the month; big deal.  So, someone at least fifteen years older than me who still sold shoes for a living thought she’d let me know that she was better than me; actually, that’s just funny, if I allow myself to be bitchy.

Of course, the event was designed to humiliate me in public.  It didn’t achieve the intended goal and that was the end of it for me.  However, it could have ended much differently, with far worse conclusions.  I will never know what the “lady” was thinking, if she was thinking at all, but she could have found herself seriously unstuck.  People operating in certain cultures and social circles tend to forget that other groups have different criteria for what is acceptable.  For instance, there are people out there who will consider it appropriate and righteous to resort to violence, up to and including murder, in return for “disrespect”[2].  Insulting someone whose background you don’t know and assuming that they will respond in the manner you are accustomed to is a dangerous game to play.  Considering that I have an accent that is clearly foreign but can’t be easily identified, she was being incredibly incautious.

In addition to tribal differences, there are other issues that may make people’s reactions unpredictable.  As it happens I am comfortable with who I am and what I’ve achieved.  I know and like myself.  Her opinion of me, based purely on what I was wearing on that particular day, could not have mattered less to me.  That she chose to be rude to me didn’t dent my ego or self-respect at all.  Her rudeness reflected badly on her as a person and as a professional, and that was all.  When I was younger and far more insecure, on the other hand, her behaviour would have affected me emotionally.  I would have been triggered into an emotional state that would have almost ensured some sort of blow-up.  Again, she was taking a risk if she assumed that the reaction would have been purely verbal.

In addition to our culture and the strength of our ego defences, most of us are also affected by everyday events.  Everyone has a boiling point and everyone has triggers.  It just so happens that the “lady” found me on a good day, when my mood was level.  Had she caught me on a bad day, when I was already wound up, I might have responded in a rather more heated manner. 

All in all, our shoeseller was taking a gamble by assuming that she could cheek me without consequences.  She didn’t know anything about me – my cultural background, my standards of behaviour, my outlook on life and my current mood.  It was by sheer luck that the universe conspired to have me in the right frame of mind to ensure a resolution with a minimum of fuss.

As Marc MacYoung says, “The #1 pre-attack indicator: YOU'RE BEING AN ASSHOLE!”[3]  Personally, I have noticed that this sort of behaviour is far more common in “better” areas.  I have lived in some very rough areas where people were generally very careful about being civil to each other.  My theory is that it was due mostly to two considerations.  Firstly, they were genuinely tough people.  They didn’t have to try and appear tougher by being rude.  Both they and the people around them knew that they were tough, because they had actually proved themselves in the real world.  Secondly, there was a cost to rudeness.  If you insulted someone there would be consequences, so you didn’t do it unless you really had a point to make.

Marc MacYoung stated that “violence is not a place, it is a road.”  It is an unfolding process that can start with very little, a look or a word, and can end in a killing.  Different people are comfortable at different points in the road, which can be hard for us to fathom.  For instance, I am deeply uncomfortable with veiled social violence.  I tend to get so wrapped up in how best to deal with it without ruffling too many feathers that I become extremely ineffectual.  Push me further, though, where the hostility is open and pressing and suddenly I’m happier than a kid at Christmas.  I abhor social awkwardness, but I have no compunction about fighting like a hellcat when required, verbally or physically.  And yes, I might be small and rodent-like but I’m also devious, unfair and stubborn.  Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, I don’t have “DANGER-EXPLOSIVES” tattooed on my forehead.  In fact, I’ve known plenty of other trigger-happy maniacs, and none of them had a warning label.

I sometimes wonder whether violence is more like a playground slide than a road.  It may take a long time and many small, inconsequential-seeming steps to climb up to the top, but once you get there you only need a slight push and down you go, whether you like it or not and at a speed you might struggle to control.  The best way to avoid going down the slide is not to climb up it in the first place.  Yes, this is often more easily said than done, but hey, it’s worth a try.

[2] Check this programme out for an example of how insulting the wrong people can have lethal consequences:

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