Friday, January 4, 2008

Accountability is suprisingly not an Econ class

Someone told me today that I was rude.

It happened in a blur -- I was coming off of an elevator at work thinking I was late for a meeting, head mostly down, a million miles away. I saw someone I recognized as a co-worker but don't know her first name standing still slightly to the side of the elevator door -- I whisked in front of her and stepped lightly around a lady I hadn't seen coming gingerly around the corner using a cane, and said "excuse me" as I passed beside her. Then I hear from Co-Worker "I should say so. That was rude".

I stopped in my tracks and spun around. "Excuse me?"

Now Co-Worker and I are standing face to face. "That was very rude. I stood and waited for that lady to pass."

"I didn't see that lady."

"You saw me standing there. That was rude."

"Wow, well... um... thanks for saying so. I apologize..." I say to her back as she takes off down the hall.

I felt like I had been hit by a car. I wanted to cry but waited until I got home (how courteous!). I wanted to throw up on her (not courteous!). I wanted to show her my senior high school yearbook where I was voted Most Courteous (the girl who was voted Most Likely to Succeed was pinched a few years after graduation for getting into a bar fight with another girl over the guy she was seeing -- definitely not courteous!).
I think of myself as a generally courteous person. I work in a building with very physically fragile people, which involves a lot of waiting for people who need more time to do things to do them, offering help with little things like carrying meal trays from the cashier to the table in the cafeteria, holding elevator doors a little longer. I wait, I carry, I hold. I try to do so with as much visible respect for the individual as I can.

I was devastated that someone had perceived my behavior as purposeful -- that I had assessed the situation and chose to proceed as I did just because I'm more important than anyone around me. I was also stunned that someone who I'm sure I've never had a conversation with felt strongly enough about that brief moment in time to label my actions as rude and to hold me accountable, that Co-Worker was so affronted that she had made a decision about proper behavior in that moment but I didn't make the same decision, even though to her eyes I could have. She spoke up. She called me on it. It broke my heart.

I've never, ever done that in a social context. I've wanted to when someone was raving out in the line at the grocery store or when a puffed-up doctor made an allusion to the fact that I must have a part-time job to makes ends meet. Conflict resolution classes teach you to say things like "I know you didn't mean to, but... (you just stepped on my dog, you're drinking MY Diet Dr. Pepper, you're being a complete ass)" to start a dialog where both parties feel good about the exchange. Members of a Christian community are supposed to hold each other accountable for their actions, speaking the truth but saying it in love. I have never done that, nor had it done to me until today.

As angry as I initially was by Co-Worker's manner of giving me the what-for in a public place as other co-workers passed by, and whether or not it was a fair perception of those 5 seconds of my life today, I will be more vigilant in the future. I will change a behavior because it is the right thing to do. And soon, as a little time passes, I'm sure I truly will thank Co-Worker for setting an example of the power of holding someone (self included) accountable. Now if I could just find that yearbook and a photo copier...

The painting above, The Rude Lord, is a Banksy "graffiti" of a Thomas Beach portrait from 1776. It was sold at Sotheby's recently as part of a collection, and was expected to go for more than $450,000. Not courteous!

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