If unassertiveness training ever catches on, I will be hailed as the exalted grand poobah of the movement. I pride myself on my complete inability to be forceful, firm or aggressive. I am the woman who once fired a grossly incompetent house cleaner (whose idea of thorough cleaning was to flush the toilet after dumping her cigarette butts in it) with these harsh words: "Um, Wendy, I was wondering if, like, maybe you could not work here anymore. I mean, I'd still continue to pay you every week, of course, but, like, could you just not show up?"
Still, it's not as if I have never had my moments of setting people straight. I am the essence of compliance... unless and until, that is, I encounter an act of what I call preemptive rudeness, when someone rudely warns me about my behavior before I even exhibit any behavior at all or have half a second to self-correct an inadvertent offense. Then I pretty much go off.
The incident that sort of set the bar for me in that regard occurred several years ago in West Virginia. I was minding my own business, unobtrusively making my way to my seat in a large sports arena, when my purse slipped off my shoulder and I stopped momentarily to reposition it. Instantly, a large, hairy, utterly unattractive boor bellowed, "More your ass. Ain't no way you gonna stand there all night blocking my view."
I was stunned! Why, it was as if he had read my mind, as that was exactly what I had planned--to pay top dollar for a ticket, and then stand mid-aisle, holding my heavy coat, purse, a large diet Coke and a bag of chips for two hours straight. What could be a more enjoyable way to watch a basketball game?
I turned around, went nose-to-nose with the drunken, grammatically-challenged behemoth, and sputtered through clenched teeth, "First of all, I have no intention of standing here all night, as I, unlike you, know what is appropriate behavior in public. I merely stopped for half a second to adjust my purse. Second of all, if by chance I were to accidentally block your view for an extended period of time, the proper way to call my attention to that would be to say, 'Excuse me, ma'am, would you mind stepping out of the way so that I can see.' And I would immediately apologize and oblige you. That's called civil discourse. And right now, I think you should both thank me for enlightening you as well as apologize for your brutish behavior. Go on, I'm listening."
I would like to say he had an etiquette epiphany right then and there, but in actuality he just yelled at my husband, "You better git yer woman outta my face before I commence to punching her lights out."
For an unassertive person, I have delivered a respectable number of dressing downs for preemptive rudeness, including to a haughty assistant bank manager, an officious clerk in the county records office and, what may have been my crowning achievement, a self-important optometrist with a bad nose job. I mention all of this now because just this afternoon I had a run-in with an offender that really raised my ire. It was a lovely late winter afternoon in Atlanta, made lovelier by the fact that I had the day off. I stopped at Panera to grab a salad and was looking forward to eating out on the sunny patio and just enjoying the preview of spring weather. There was only one other person sitting out there, a woman at the opposite end whose back was turned to me. I set my tray on the table and myself on the chair, reached into my purse to retrieve my phone to check movie times and inadvertently touched an ad. The audio played for less than a millisecond, no, less than a microsecond, no, truly less than a nanosecond, before I stopped it.
Suddenly, the air was filled with what can only be described as a primal growl, "Noooo! Oh, no you don't, not on my birthday! You are not coming out here and playing that thing on my birthday!"
I was so startled I jumped in my seat a bit and looked around, trying to determine where the unnatural sound was coming from. I finally figured out it was coming from the woman at the other end of the patio who still had her back turned to me. And as she continued her guttural grumbling, never once turning in my direction, I further figured out she was talking to me. Never mind that her ridiculous rant was several seconds longer, several decibels louder and infinitely more disturbing to the peace than my nanosecond breach of phone etiquette had been. I was so taken aback, my natural unassertive/apologetic reflexes kicked in.
"I'm so sorry. I accidentally touched an audio ad on my phone. I had no intention of playing anything out here," I gushed, although by the end of my apology, I was feeling my stomach acid starting to churn in recognition of what was clearly an incident of preemptive rudeness.
And did she graciously accept my olive branch, perhaps even acknowledge with a smile that she had spoken too soon and too strongly? No! She continued in a mad, rambling monologue -- addressed to the parking lot, I guess, as she still hadn't turned around to face me -- about her birthday, some damn idiots, cellular noise and her not taking it anymore.
At that point, I determined that this was not a simple case of preemptive rudeness, but one with complications of full-on looniness. An act of assertiveness in this instance might well have ended with my being stabbed in the eye with a salad fork. I picked up my tray and purse and repaired to the safety of an inside table.
"I can't believe you came back inside on this gorgeous day," said one of the employees who knows me and my penchant for eating outside in any weather short of a blizzard.
"Well, there's a birthday party going on out there and I didn't want to intrude," I explained.
"There is?" she asked, confused.
"Yeah, a small party, a party of one, actually," I replied. "And trust me, the guest list is one you don't want to be on."
Looking out at the beautiful blues skies and sunshine that I was being forced to enjoy through glass, I muttered under my breath, "Happy damn birthday, you loon."
Call me unassertive if you must, but sometimes it's best to let mad dogs lie.
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