I read and enjoyed Amy Alkon’s book, I See Rude People: One woman’s battle to beat some manners into impolite society.
The book was funny, gave me a new way of looking at rudeness, and Amy’s relentless desire to confront the rude was intriguing. In fact, you could say that Amy Alkon is the first anti-rudeness ninja. Or maybe, not. It is catchy though, right?
What follows is the slightly edited transcript of my conversation with Amy Alkon. Enjoy.
People are much ruder on the internet than they are in real life. Why do you think that is?
Well, if you walk up to somebody in the grocery store and say, “Hey tubby, you might want to rethink those Ho Ho’s,” chances are, you’re going to get decked. On the internet, people just take out their rage at feeling small by saying really horrible things to and about other people.
OK, do you think the rudeness of internet culture has helped make people in society ruder in general?
Well, rudeness begets rudeness and we see so much of it that it becomes a social norm — people talking on cell phones in cafes, for example — or in the drug store — they’re screaming their dull life into your brain and they feel perfectly entitled to do that because they see many other people doing it.
What they are actually lacking is empathy. At the root of manners is empathy; it’s thinking, “Gee, might I be bothering you by shouting about my daughter?” Last night at Staples, this guy comes in, I’m making copies, and he is ordering a pizza so loudly. He’s shouting, “I don’t want the anchovies.” I said, “You’re not really going to stand here and make us all assist you in ordering a pizza, are you?” And the guy says, “Oh, good point,” and went outside. But, that sort of thing is such anti-social, horrible, me, me, me generation behavior. I’m appalled by it.
It’s why I wrote the book. At one point, I just looked around and thought, “We are living in mean land.” I figured out why people are rude and I set about changing it.
Now, speaking of that, you had a fascinating conversation you talked about in your book with someone who posted a rude comment on your web site. You tracked him down and actually talked to him on the phone. Can you tell us about that?
Sure. I wrote this piece on my blog about this woman who had six different children by five different drug dealers by the age of 24 and was living with the last drug dealer, had actually spent a year in jail — so no one was taking care of her kids then.
I am of the mind, shocking as it is, that children need daddies — and that you don’t have more children than you can pay for. I don’t know how, at 24, you take six kids to the dentist every year. So, I blogged about this. It turned out this woman was killed in a SWAT raid when they came to look for the drug dealer. You know, live with a drug dealer, sign on for a SWAT raid — it’s not real hard to put together.
Now should there be a SWAT raid on a house with children in it? No. But this is what happened because of the life she was living and so when I blogged about this, I also added that Jesse Jackson should do something to stigmatize single mothers in the black community, because this woman happened to be black. And if you criticize a black person, you are, of course, racist….
I think we need to stop the interview at this point because you’re obviously a racist after hearing that story…
You’re funny. So, you’re obviously a racist, even if you say the exact same thing about white children – so there’s a “progressive website” who went after me.
Basically they just find somebody they perceive to be conservative and then they become the kick ball, and they come on your site and leave all these really horrible comments and mess up your speech — which you don’t get to do to me. You can start a whole website: Amyalkonconisabiguglyidiot.com. I’m a free speecher. I’m all for that. Take pictures off my site, parody me, that’s fine. If you’re funny I’ll even link to you.
But, you don’t get to come on my site and try to screw up my speech. These people all left comments like — typical stuff — “Are you a tranny?” “Do you have a penis?” “You look like a man,” and then they left 30 page spam posts every minute one Sunday while using the server for Chinese dissidents.
So, I’m not a good victim. All these people — they’re all anonymous because they’re weenies. I only post on the internet in my own full name. I know not everyone does that, but I encourage people to at least post as if they are.
So, all these anonymous people keep doing this and one day, at two in the morning, I get this comment, “Are you a tranny?” Oh, whatever. So, I look up the IP and it turns out to trace back to the NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I track the guy down. He wasn’t as clever at hiding his identity as thought. He had posted on Keith Olbermann’s site using the same e-mail address he left on mine. So it took me about 40 minutes I think, but not only did I figure out who he was and that he worked at the NOAA, I thought, “I wonder if they have a staff directory?” Sure enough, they do.
I looked him up, found his phone number and I said, “He posted on my website at two, it’s now about three, so maybe he’s still at work.” Sure enough, he was. I called and said, “Hi, it’s Amy Alkon. Do you think I look like a man?”
He said, “This is a government facility. You can’t call me here.” I said, “I know. I’m paying you with my taxpayer dollars and when you’re supposed to be making sure satellites don’t fall out of the sky, instead, you’re posting “Are you a tranny” on my website? I mean this is horrible. It’s amazing that you’re doing this. So, he ended up apologizing and everything. The guy was just such a wimp. It just illustrates to me what I always believe about these people who do these anonymous attacks on the internet — if you ever walked up to them and just like spoke three words to them, they would disintegrate into a small pile of ash. That’s basically what this guy did on the phone — and I exposed him, also. I e-mailed the NOAA and said, “Do you know what people are doing when they are supposed to be making sure that satellites don’t land on the roof of the White House?” So, that was basically what happened.
That’s a golden story.
What sort of rude behavior do too many parents let their kids get away with in public?
Anything and everything. Kids basically will light Starbucks on fire if they can get their hands on matches, because kids are so poorly raised. Basically parents let their kids scream a lot and indulge them in every way.
I was raised by parents that I joke about as loving fascists, but, that’s how parents are supposed to be. The idea that I could ever, ever be loud in a restaurant or kick the back of your seat in a movie theater did not exist for me, in what was the possible in the known universe.
It’s basically all about consideration. Children are just another medium through which the rude inflict themselves on us. If you have a child in what I call the feral stage, you don’t get to bring your child just anywhere. You need to be very careful. Take your kid to Chuck E. Cheese, but wait until your child is less feral to bring it to places where people might be disturbed — to adult restaurants and places like that.
I do have to say my friend Heather has an autistic child and so she can’t just leave him home for life, but she’s great about where she brings him. We had his birthday party; I’m invited, I’m Aunt Amy, at this very loud restaurant, the loudest restaurant in Los Angeles. You can never hear yourself talk there. So that way if there’s an outburst, he’s five, he’s great, but sometimes there is — nobody would be bothered. She takes him to her daughter’s school functions and she taps the shoulders of people around her and she says, “My son is autistic, there may be an outburst. If there is, I’m sorry, and I will take him outside, but I just wanted to let you know.” That way people show all this generosity of spirit. They’re not mad if something happens. They smile at her and she takes him outside.
But it’s just when you get the sense that these “parents” do not care about anything but their conversation or their lunch and they’re just going to let this child scream and do all sorts of stuff they shouldn’t because they would just rather not parent them. They want to be liked by their children. They’re lazy and their children are accessories. There are all sorts of reasons that this is happening and it makes me boil….
Last question. In your book, you say you want people to stand up and challenge rude behavior sort of as an effort to change the culture. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Basically if somebody takes your wallet, it’s a tangible thing. It’s there and then it’s gone and you know you’ve been robbed.
People who are rude — they are taking our time, our peace of mind, our good night’s sleep — if you have neighbors that play the thunka, thunka boom music at two in the morning. These people are also stealing from us. But, we don’t recognize it because we don’t see these things as resources. We need to see them that way so we can refuse to be victimized.
Now the great epidemic of rudeness has to do with us living in this society that’s basically too big for our brains. We didn’t evolve to be around strangers. Now we’re all living around (strangers) for the most part. When you’re around a stranger, you can do anything to them if you’re not a nice person. But, say that’s your neighbor driving behind you, you’re for sure not going to flip him the bird because tomorrow, you’re going to find Mount Saint Helens in poo on your stoop.
So the other thing we can do, that everybody can do, is to treat strangers like neighbors. All that takes is doing small kindnesses for people. …You’ve met a stranger. You’ve got an interest in their problem. You solved their problem. It takes you almost no energy and that person is going to feel so good that you took that meaningful interest in them that they are going to also probably pass that on and life will feel a little bit less like on big wrestling smack down.
Amy, thank you so much for your time.
Thank you. This was great.