'Politeness is extremely important to me, though sometimes I wonder if I set the bar too high.' Read an extract from I Can't Believe You Just Said that by Danny Wallace, an exploration of what it means to be rude
In 2015, after 27-year-old Omar Hussain left his job at a Morrisons supermarket in Buckinghamshire and fled the United Kingdom to join the radical terrorist jihadist group ISIS, he was extraordinarily disappointed to find out how rude they all were.
We all get annoyed at our colleagues from time to time, but for Omar Hussain the everyday rudeness displayed by those simultaneously plotting to bring down the very tenets of Western civilisation was a step too far.
In a blog he wrote in his first few months in the desert, he complained in no uncertain terms about the ‘bad manners’ of his fellow radicalised death-cult militants.
Under a series of numbered headings on Tumblr, the bearded and bespectacled Hussain launched a blistering attack on Arab administrative skills.
‘There is no queue in any of their offices,’ wrote the furious Briton. ‘You could be waiting in line for half an hour and then another Arab would come and push in the queue and go straight in.’
When serving his peers dinner after a long day of terrorist training in the desert, Omar was shocked to be ‘pounced upon by everyone in the room. I therefore refused to give anyone food until every single one of them was sitting down in their seats. Unfortunately, I had to treat them like primary school students.’
Poor Omar just hadn’t known what he was letting himself in for. In subsequent blogs and tweets, you can tell he was becoming withdrawn. He talks of loneliness; he has trouble peeling potatoes; he spends his free time trying to find chocolates or feeding a local cat called Lucy.
What Omar perceived as the rudeness of others really affected him: this kind of behaviour was not what he signed up to ISIS for, and it was wearing him down.
It only got worse.
‘In the West, it is common knowledge to walk out of a room wearing the same pair of shoes that you wore while entering the room. Nay, it is common sense!’ he wrote at one point, and you know someone’s annoyed when they use words like nay. ‘However, here in Sham, our Syrian brothers [. . .] believe that everyone can wear each other’s footwear. Sometimes you would enter a building and when leaving, you would see the person with your shoes walking 100 yards ahead of you and it can be quite irritating.’
Of course, these things happen in war. But Omar suddenly found himself in a world in which men would simply stand three feet away and stare at him while saying nothing, and even where terrorists would ‘casually take your phone off charge to charge their own phone’.
Omar expected better of ISIS. He didn’t like how they would be so ‘childish in their dealings and mannerisms’, nor how they would rifle through other people’s property without asking first. They were always invading his space, and they talked far too loudly when he was trying to sleep.
As far as he could tell, they didn’t find their own behaviour rude at all.
We all have our own standards when it comes to rudeness.
* * *
Politeness is extremely important to me, though sometimes I wonder if I set the bar too high.
I feel rude if I sneeze on a plane. I have lost count of the number of times I have apologised to bins or lampposts if I’ve walked into them. If a dog looks my way as I walk through a park, I feel ashamed if I don’t smile or nod a hello. I don’t think I’d last five minutes with ISIS before I’d be straight to Human Resources!
But never was I more aware of my own standards of rudeness than on the day – and immediate aftermath – of what we’ll call ‘the Hotdog Incident’.
All I wanted was a sausage. What I got instead was an afternoon of incredible stress and the desire to do something about it. The desire, as it would turn out, to write this book. Initially I tried to exorcise my demons by composing a scathing 200-word review. But 200 words did nothing. There was too much I still wanted to say – and know. Something that began as a little silly took on a serious edge. What started as a few print-outs left by my bed in London soon became documents in ring-binders arranged in my office.
And all of this purely to try and understand exactly what happened between me and a complete stranger over an emulsified sausage.
In the following months, as my interest in the question of why people are rude became an obsession – and winning an argument became writing a book – I would start to realise that we are on the edge of something truly dangerous. I found myself calling upon the expertise of behavioural psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, bell boys, cab drivers, removals men, sociologists, journalists, ethicists, political strategists, neurologists, barristers, baristas, waiters, politicians, NASA scientists, a limo driver called José and at least one expert in cooked meat production.
Simultaneously, as I read more studies and familiarised myself with a whole new world of research and investigation, I began to discover I was part of a hidden community of ‘rudeness nerds’, working diligently in the shadows to figure out why we are the way we are – and what it means.
And it’s not pretty.
I’ll be honest with you: I thought I had a pretty good handle on rudeness. What I wasn’t expecting to find was what a threat it poses to our happiness – and maybe even to our continued existence on this planet. Its effects are potent, damaging and, scariest of all, contagious. In the coming pages, I’ll show you how rudeness affects the way our brains work, how it clouds our judgement and how it worsens our choices. We’ll see how experiencing it can make us less effective at our jobs, and make us worse fathers and mothers, sons, daughters and friends. We’ll meet people who’ll show us how rudeness can stop us trusting, and make us barbed, suspicious and vicious. How those in power use it to keep us down.
If any of the things I’ve just told you happened because of something scientifically traceable – a mosquito bite, say, or a worm scratch – I am certain the world’s governments would leap into immediate action. There would be constant panic and 24-hour rolling news coverage and someone would have quarantined Simon Cowell.
But as it is, for now it’s just you, me, and this book.
Think about that for a second.
* * *
One thing before we get started. This is not a book about etiquette. I couldn’t care less about etiquette. You can burn every etiquette book in the world as far as I’m concerned, so long as it’s done safely and not downwind of anybody trying to enjoy their garden. I don’t think we need to pull out chairs for people. If there’s a puddle, I’m not going to take off my brand new cape and lay it down for you to step on, though if I were wearing a cape in the first place you’d have every right to be rude to me.
However, I do think if someone’s walking through a door behind us we could hold it open for them. I do think if we’re queuing in a Syrian post office, we should absolutely wait our turn, and if a radical extremist tries to elbow his way to the front, we have every right to sigh and tut.
That’s the difference between etiquette and politeness. Etiquette is outdated; politeness is all we need, and this book is both a warning and a rallying cry for civility. We need politeness because it is right, it lifts our spirits, it makes things better, it lubricates the day and helps everything run smoother.
And we need it now more than ever, because things are getting worse.
* * *
Don’t tell me you haven’t felt it too. This ‘New Rudeness’ is global. It’s in the air, it pours out of our phones, tumbles from our TVs, dominates the cultural conversation and I firmly believe it threatens to overwhelm us.
Passive aggression. Road rage. Below-the-line commenters. Spitters. Queue-jumpers. People who are #justsaying or Only Being Honest or Not Being Funny But.
We seem more stressed, more time-pressed, tired, fed up, angry and put upon. We seem more resentful, envious, self-obsessed, racist and, yes, sad. We think less, react more, and run and jump to conclusions just so we have one, where once we might have ambled to see what happened along the way. We are self-entitled, knee-jerking, know-it-all thunderdicks.
We are ruder than we’ve ever been, and the train is running away.
You get one nasty TV judge, and suddenly they can’t commission a single show without one. You give one awful person a newspaper column, wait until he or she writes something that in civilised countries would be rightly deemed sociopathic, and we don’t fire them; we give them a chat show on a minority satellite channel. We find ourselves at a point in time where suddenly we admire politicians who come up with put-downs instead of policies. Why? Because we find them ‘refreshing’. We mistake their rudeness for ‘honesty’, because we confuse ‘honesty’ with ‘opinion’, in much the same way as bores at dinner parties confuse cynicism with wit.
Of course, it’s tempting to think only ‘other people’ are rude. But the truth is, we’re all at it.i
Some go out of their way to be rude, like the coal-hearted newspaper columnist desperately scrabbling around on deadline for thuggish ways to insult whoever’s looking weak, just so one day she can line her own coffin with slightly more expensive felt. Like the millionaires on Saturday-night TV making more money and generating more fame by humiliating those with mental health problems who just want a tiny slice of the hopeless dream they’re being sold by the very people who’ll never give it to them.
I’ll touch on those people – because of their influence and because I can’t stand them and because it’ll be fun – but thanks to the The meat-based Incident that could just as easily have happened to you, or your mother, or your neighbour’s ex-wife, I want to focus on the everydayness of rudeness too. The tedious, beige mundanity of a rudeness that is now everywhere.
The wearing, draining, energy-sapping pointlessness of it all.
The New Rudeness is like a suffocating blanket, and this book an attempt to pull back the covers. I think we are at a point in time where we reward the wrong things. We celebrate incivility, we admire it, we joyfully kick our legs and laugh as we actively sink ourselves deeper into the quicksand of society’s lowest cultural ebb.
Let’s have fun finding out why!
Human beings are fundamentally good. We’re a terrific bunch. But we slip up all the time. And I know what you’re thinking. Something pretty terrible must have happened to me to make me go this far, so far that I had to write a whole book on the subject.
And you’d be right.
That something terrible was the Hotdog Incident...
Passive aggression. Road rage. Snarky tweets. Queue-jumpers. Idiots who are #justsaying. Fat shamers. Victim blaming. Furious waitresses who refuse to sell you a hot dog… We are ruder than we’ve ever been.
In this incisive and very funny book, Danny Wallace investigates the new wave of rudeness that threatens to overwhelm us. He travels the world, visiting our rudest critics, interviewing psychologists, psychiatrists, bell boys, cab drivers, bin men, barristers, politicians, a limo driver called José and at least one expert in cooked meat production. In doing so he uncovers the hidden truths behind what makes us rude, whether it can be caught, and how one small moment of rudeness—like being declined a hotdog—can snowball into disaster.
From the jihadist who launched a blistering attack on the “bad manners” of his fellow ISIS militants, to the mayor in Bogota who recruited an army of mimes to highlight inconsiderate driving—this is a very funny and powerful exploration into the way humans work and why it is surely time for an anti-rudeness revolution.