Your first encounter with rudeness this morning might be the neighbor who was mowing their lawn at 7am.It might be the person who went out of turn at the stoplight. It might be the person who, not content even with the extra room of their first class seat, needs to impede on your personal space and accidentally shove you awake while you’re sleeping on that red eye flight. It could be the way your kid talked to you on the phone or the comment your significant other made for no reason. It could be from a co-worker or a total stranger.
You can and you will meet rude people everywhere. Marcus Aurelius, who theoretically had the power to ban this kind of behavior from his presence (or at the very least punish it with the kind of retribution we occasionally fantasize about), kicked off each day by preparing for this, reminding himself that his fellow humans were often selfish, rude and annoying. The point was to not let it catch him by surprise, so he would be indignant and shocked by it.
But there’s another part of the exercise—spending a few seconds trying to understand and sympathize with the people who behave this way. As David Foster Wallace would say in his famous “This Is Water” speech, we want to avoid the immediate, unconscious assumption that people are rude at us, that they are trying to hurt us, that they mean to act so selfishly.
“Most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line – maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible – it just depends on what you want to consider.”
Think about what you want to consider today, and what is a better way of going around in the world. That there are rude people everywhere or hurting, confused, otherwise friendly people in the world who occasionally do rude things? Which handle are you going to pick situations up by?
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