You don’t realize there are rules about how people behave in public spaces until one of them is being broken. Sociologists call these social norms. I know this despite the fact that I bitterly failed my first Intro to Sociology exam as a freshman in college.
I was having lunch at the Maple Grove Byerly’s last week by myself, because I apparently enjoy paying $9 for a salad. Between bites of arugula and mushrooms, I noticed that an annoying radio station was blaring overhead. An angry woman kept raining down rant after rant, and I thought this was odd for Byerly’s. Michael Bolton set to musak? Not odd for Byerly’s. Angry, petulant female shock jocks reflected perhaps an expanding target market for this gritty grocery chain.
Then I noticed it wasn’t a radio station. It was an actual woman, sitting in this actual dining room.
She was across the room, and one of her shopping bags was sitting in front of her face, so I couldn’t see her. She was on her phone, and she was livid. So I did what everyone else was doing: I pretended to keep reading my book while simultaneously trying to hear every word she said.
Though there wasn’t space for the person on the other end of the line to speak, she kept saying, “I swear, you better let me talk, or I will hang up on you right now.” She must have said this a dozen times. There was mention of lawyers, and it was all just really, really loud.
The rest of us in the dining kept awkwardly looking at each other, as if to say, “Doesn’t she know where she is? Doesn’t she know this is our place, too? Doesn’t she know that she’s being completely inappropriate? Doesn’t she know she should leave?”
It went on and on, and I finished my salad and decided to go get a flu shot. You can do this in Byerly’s now. Soon we’ll be able to book a room for the night, as God intended for us to do in grocery stores. When I was filling out paperwork and waiting, I kept thinking about this woman. And then I thought about my reaction to her. I noticed something:
When people act inappropriately, my first move is to judge them. What’s wrong with them? Don’t they know they can’t do that here? I wish they would leave! They’re ruining my lunch!
I almost never realize how incredibly lame I am being when I think those things.
Steven Covey writes about a father with young kids on a subway car. The kids are wild, racing around, being loud and inappropriate. They’re clearly bothering the rest of the people who are trapped in the subway car, while the father just stares off into space. Finally, an exasperated person next to him says, “Sir! Get ahold of your children, please!”
This breaks him out of his trance, and he says, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. It’s just that we’re just coming home from the funeral of their mother, and I just have no idea what I’m going to do without her.”
We really have no idea what everybody else is up against.
After I got my flu shot, I started walking back towards the dining room to see if the angry woman was still there. I had resolved to try to talk to her if she was done with her phone call. This scared me to death because it was certain to be a conversation that was quicksand, sticky and messy and never over. I was relieved when she was not there, so I went to the bathroom and drove back to work.
We can’t help everybody. We can’t jump into people’s messes and expect to fix them. But I wonder if a warm smile, a touch on the arm, and maybe the gift of a vanilla latté might have gone a long way for this obviously hurting woman.
Let’s notice when our first move is judgment, and let’s see if we have it in us to do something different, even if it’s small.