There’s a wonderful moment in the new movie Walk the Line, in which Reese Witherspoon as country-singing star June Carter is accosted by another woman while out Christmas shopping. At first June assumes this is just an admiring fan, and puts on her usual, cheerfully gracious public face. But instead the woman lambastes her for the “abomination” of divorce, and expresses surprise that June’s parents even still speak to her.
The script has made clear how pained June’s been by her failed marriage, and Witherspoon lets her face quietly fall. Then she says simply, “Well, I’m sorry I let you down, Ma’am,” and continues shopping.
What a perfect response–firmly squelching, yet impeccably polite. And how difficult to imagine such a ladylike reaction from, say, Britney Spears or any of her contemporaries. More likely they’d resort to “The Universal Eff-Off Reflex,” as Lynne Truss calls it in her witty new book Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door.
The terrible thing about today’s Eff-Off Reflex is not just that it’s vulgarly hostile, but that it’s also ineffective. Anyone told (however justifiably) to Eff-Off naturally feels self-righteous and angry. But it’s hard to imagine that the woman attacking June Carter felt anything, after hearing June’s mild answer, except small and (even if she’d never admit it) perhaps a little ashamed.
I’ve written before about boorish modern men. But if anything, modern women can be worse, because even the very concept of ladylike behavior seems to have nearly vanished from contemporary civic life. This extends not only to public conversation but general public decorum, and you don’t have to be an avowed fussbudget like Truss to notice. “I now can’t abide many, many things,” she admits, “and am actually always on the look-out for more things to find completely unacceptable.”
My friend Amy Alkon, for instance, who writes a syndicated advice column, recently tangled with a woman sitting behind her in a movie theater who couldn’t understand why anyone would mind sharing her armrest with a fellow moviegoer’s shoe. A glare from Amy got the shoe (initially) to retreat, but “moments later her dirty sneaker sole was right back up there, playing footsie with my lavender shawl… She actually said, ‘It isn’t bothering you.’”
I’ve had these encounters all too often myself. A couple of years ago on an airplane, the girl sitting in front of me became bizarrely enraged that my knee prevented her from reclining her seat back as far as it could possibly go. Usually, it’s the person whose knees are getting smashed to complain in these situations, but in this case it was the knee-smasher that called over the flight attendant, who basically shrugged. So then the frustrated space-hog threatened to vomit on me if I didn’t uncross my leg to allow her even more reclining space.
“With your head turned all the way round, like in The Exorcist?” I said brightly. “Can you really do that?” And so on and so forth, all the way from Winnipeg to L.A. This is why I never fly coach if I can possibly help it.
Perhaps this young woman was a kind and considerate person when not dealing with the stress and inconvenience of travel, but I doubt it. As Lynne Truss writes: “Can you equate civility and virtue? My own answer would be yes, despite all the famous counter-examples of blood-stained dictators who had exquisite table manners and never used their mobile phone in a crowded train compartment to order mass executions.”
Then there are the strange new habits young women now have about their bodies, sometimes treating any public space as their own personal bathroom. Last year I was in a doctor’s waiting room with my daughter Maia, then 15, and quickly became annoyed by another teenage girl there, dressed head-to-toe in Juicy Couture (never a good sign.)
First this girl yelled loudly, in Valley Girl oh-my-God uptalk, at one of her parental units on her cell phone while striding around the room. Then she slouched in a chair next to me, alternately biting her nails, holding strands of her hair in front of her face for examination, and staring moodily into space.
“Is that seat next to you taken?” an older woman asked.
“Uh, I don’t know,” said the girl irritably, apparently irked at being interrupted from the vitally important activities of staring blankly and picking at herself. “I don’t think so.”
On my other side, Maia sat quietly, reading Seventeen. “I’m going to sit on the other side of the waiting room, away from this chimpanzee girl,” I whispered to my daughter. I dislike being near people who pick at themselves in public like apes. I would have understood had it been a veterinarian’s waiting room, but we were at the dermatologist’s.
Lest you think I’m just a cranky old wet blanket, intolerant of the freewheeling ways of girls today, I must add that some of the most aggressively rude displays I’ve encountered come from women my own generation or even older. There were the old ladies in the Los Angeles Farmer’s Market, for instance, who called me the c-word for not letting them appropriate a chair (which I needed) from my table. More recently, there was the middle-aged woman driving by a carwash an L.A. high-school had organized to benefit the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Seeing what was going on, the woman slowed down her Mercedes, but not to get it washed.
“And just what are you doing,” she yelled out her window at the astonished kids before zooming off, “for the children of Iraq?”
– Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.