Scene: An elevator in New York Presbyterian Hospital where several others and I were temporary hostages of a filthy-mouthed woman who was profanely berating her male companion. It wasn't possible to discern whether he was her mate or her son, but his attire (baggy drawers) and insolent disposition seemed to suggest the latter.
Every other word out of the woman's mouth was mother------, presumably a coincidental reference to any familial relationship. Finally, she shared with us bystanders her belief that said mother------ would not be welcome in her house (Hark! Good news at last!).
At this point, in a variation of deus ex machina, the elevator doors opened and we, the numb majority, were able to escape our too-close quarters, but not the diatribe, which continued unabated down the hallway, through the exit and onto the sidewalk.
A few of us made eye contact and returned the stare of recognition common among hostages. The understood sentiment is helpless indignation. What, really, can one do under such circumstances?
It was comical in a way. Seven or eight adults standing at attention, eyes forward, pretending that nothing is amiss or untoward, figuring we'd just get through this and thanking the stars and the moon that no children were on board and that this woman would not much longer be part of our lives. Our better sense instructed us that interference would not be rewarded with contrition. But what if she had decided to punch him? Then what?
Her exit and our release were accepted with silent gratitude, but I have been fuming ever since because, though she was gone, she didn't really exit our lives. She managed in those fleeting moments to make a mark, to alter our lives in some way. A vile invader, she made coarse and unlovely a period of time that was not her own. What gave her the right? And what about those other dozen or so people who dropped the F-word along those same hospital corridors as the hours passed?
I can't claim virginity in these matters, I should confess. But the elevator incident was so profoundly unpleasant that I've done a little soul-searching. How easy it is to casually let slip a word without thinking how it makes others feel. Perhaps relevant to my sensitivity, I was in the hospital that day for the birth of my great-niece. There's nothing like following the intimate miracle of childbirth to make one wish for a gentler world.
Public profanity is nothing new, of course, but it inarguably has gotten worse. It was hilarious (and shocking) in the 1970s when comedian George Carlin poked fun at our cultural aversion to the seven words you can't say on television. His act now can be viewed as a period piece. We can say most anything anywhere now, and we do. Penalties may arise from behavior that accompanies foul language, but the words themselves are constitutionally protected. As they should be, I hasten to add. Like most Americans, I'm willing to have my sensibilities offended rather than surrender the freedoms that permit such offense.
Context is everything, and (non-obstetric) delivery matters. Suppose the woman on the elevator had context and delivery issues. Her verbal fusillade may have been a random event, but her actions were neither singular nor disconnected from a broader range of cultural pathologies. Lack of civility in words bleeds into a lack of decency in behavior, and so it goes.
Good behavior is nothing but good manners, simply consideration of others. Recently out of vogue, manners get hauled out the way most people attend church -- at Easter and Christmas. But manners aren't just gray-haired pretensions practiced by smug elites on special occasions. They are the daily tithes we willingly surrender to civilization.
An verbal indiscretion here or there might not constitute the unraveling of society, but each one uttered in another's involuntary presence is a tiny act of violence against kindness, of which we surely could use more.
Kathleen Parker's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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