In today’s Sunday New York Times, the City Room column is devoted to the increasingly common topic of public grooming, specifically flossing one’s teeth in public. Lion Calandra recounts an exchange with a young woman doing her dental hygeine on the subway, who finished by throwing her used floss to the subway car floor.
“Maybe you should do that at home,” Calandra suggested. “Maybe you should mind your own business,” the woman sneered.
The flosser apparently shares a common and destructive misconception with many Americans, which is that how she behaves in public is solely her choice, and anyone who suggests otherwise is an officious and sanctimonious meddler. Even those who haven’t quite swallowed this cultural Kool-Aid are often intimidated by it. On a recent blog about the public grooming topic, Liz Krieger described what she felt was outrageous behavior in a restaurant, but couldn’t bring herself to say anything to the offender. “I wanted to stare her down and see if she’d put the floss away but I opted to mind my own business, take a seat, and finish my own overpriced salad bar haul,” she wrote. The comments to her post echoed the same theme. “My resolution is to stop looking until I am old and gray – then I will use age an excuse to tell strangers to shape up,” one reader wrote.
Calandra did her civic and societal duty. Liz Krieger and her commenters are abdicating theirs. And the Subway Flosser was dead wrong—as well as a disrespectful, uncivil boor. What should have happened—indeed, what has to happen, unless we want the next generation to be witnessing toe-jam removal, defecation, or oral sex on their subway rides, is for her fellow riders to support Calandra in condemning the flosser, emphatically and firmly. Once it became clear to the young woman that she would not be able to floss in public without enduring public reprimand, she would have to abandon her attempts to set a new boundary in public decorum.
That is what she was doing, after all. Manners and public etiquette are always evolving, and society determines what it will and will not endure. The passive, “mind your own business” theory always espoused by the least respectful, rudest and least considerate among us is a prescription for an endless deterioration in the quality of public life, and a greased slide into culturally-endorsed bad conduct. Every citizen has an obligation to his and her community to confront conduct that he or she feels does not belong in public, confront the offender, and support others who do so. Doing otherwise is not “minding one’s business,” but endorsing and entrenching bad conduct, abdicating the public duty of cultural preservation.
When people are motivated and care sufficiently, they do their duty with gusto. Smokers in restaurants, elevators and other inappropriate places can count on being reprimanded. Few remember it now, but casual littering was once commonplace, until an effective national anti-littering campaign all but guaranteed that anyone throwing trash on a public street or in a park would get glares and criticism from strangers. Public disapproval works, and it is essential. Without it, gentility, respect for strangers and public decorum rot away, controlled by the most audacious and inconsiderate among us, and condemned to the lowest standards imaginable, rather than the best.
When I was in Nigeria to give a speech a few years ago, I was surprised to find that the audience, which was very polite, interested and attentive in all other respects, thought nothing was inappropriate about alowing their cell phones to ring loudly during the presentations and for the phones’ owners to answer the calls audibly. It was a very large group, and ringtones were going off more or less non-stop (because of the apparent fondness of the African lawyers for jungle-themed ringtones–elephant bellows, lion roars, exotic bird calls— I felt like I was giving my speech around a campfire); restaurants were the same : constant cell phone noise. The silencing of cell phones had not become a cultural norm in Africa, because, for whatever reason, nobody had taken the initiative to express disapproval of those who took calls during events and in public places. It had come to be regarded as approved conduct. (I do not know if there has been a subsequent anti-cell phone backlash in the intervening years.)
There was a time in the U.S. when a young man sitting on a crowed bus while a pregnant woman or a senior stood could count on being ordered out of his seat by one or more strangers. Rude movie-goers who talked during a film would be shooshed and worse. Using profanity on the public streets or in a store within earshot of others guaranteed a reprimand from the nearest stranger. Now all of those behaviors are commonplace, accepted though not acceptable, because we didn’t take care of our business: keeping society civilized. A couple of weeks ago, three teen-aged boys, two of them shirtless, burst into the local CVS while I was standing in line. They ran through the store, laughing and talking loudly, with rap music from a IPod blaring at high decibels. Everyone in the store looked uncomfortable, but nobody did anything, including the employees. I physically blocked the kids, and said, “Wait a minute. Where do you think you are? You can’t behave like this in a store. Slow down, keep your voices down, turn off the music, and the next time, wear a shirt. Got it?” They weren’t happy, and made some disparaging remarks as they left. But they did leave, and were not able to make their purchase. Two of the patrons in line with me thanked me.
“Next time,” I said, “you say something to them too.”
There are activists who confront other behavior that they find objectionable on ethical grounds, such as wearing fur or driving gas-guzzling vehicles. Whether you agree with their views or not, they are fighting to establish new social norms of conduct. Usually the activists are working on behalf of an organized cause, such as protection of endangered species or protecting the environment. All of us also belong to an organized cause: it is called civilization, and protecting our culture from attack by boors, fools and sociopaths is on everyone’s task list. Making it clear to all that rude, disrespectful, uncivil, immodest and disruptive behavior is not tolerable and will not be passively endorsed by inaction is a duty, and the more of us who do our duty, the better everyone’s lives will be.
It isn’t just flossing, ear-cleaning and nose-picking that we have to target. It is unnecessary loudness, foul language, rudeness to clerks (I recently pointed out to a 7-11 customer who never stopped chatting on her cell phone while making a purchase that her treatment of the counter attendant was degrading and offensive. Her expression indicated that this had never even occurred to her), people who cut in line, those who talk during movies and live performances, those who text-message or check blackberries during performances (some performers, courageously, have started doing confronting miscreants from the stage), couples groping or open-mouthed kissing, mothers breast-feeding immodestly, parents being abusive to children, pet owners abusing their animals or failing to clean up after them, individuals making racial, sexist or other slurs in public…all of this and more is our business, because public conduct is not solely up to the individual. The public decides what proper public conduct should be.
In the long run, those who neglect to confront the public flosser are as irresponsible as the flosser herself.