If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.
07/19/2016 11:31 pm ET | Updated Jul 21, 2016
Last week, I witnessed a young woman get “etiquette shamed” as she was leaving the local grocery store. She was heading out the front door on a bright Thursday morning, and I was right behind her. A tall, well-dressed young man was coming into the store and stopped to hold the door for her. Then, he snapped at her, “When someone holds a door for me, I thank them.”
The young woman replied, “I didn’t even have a chance to thank you yet” as the man made his way inside, and I cringed.
I cringed because the same thing has happened to me so many times. People have sarcastically snapped “you’re welcome” or “thank you” after holding a door for me before I could even open my mouth, or when I had already thanked them, albeit apparently too softly for them to hear. I’ve dubbed them the “etiquette shamers” and am surprised they don’t realize that their rebuke is far ruder than any etiquette breach they are trying to point out. The woman being shamed in this case looked so small and sounded so polite that the exchange left me furious on her behalf – but it also left me curious.
Why do people feel such a compulsion to scold or shame a stranger for a supposed infraction that’s minor or none of their business?
The trend of people “shaming” or scolding each other over a minor oversight or characteristic seems to have exploded, even if one assumes that social media only highlights what has been going on anyway. In the last 12 months, I have read a viral news story about a disabled combat veteran in Texas who got a nasty letter on his car for parking in a handicapped spot when he didn’t “look” handicapped (the vet responded with a letter on his windshield saying, “Although I may not ‘look’ handicapped to you, I can assure you that the amount of pain I feel in my lower body due to combat-sustained injuries far supersedes any level of pain you have ever felt in your life”).
Recent viral stories on the web have told of a woman who was “sweat shamed” by a stranger simply because she waited in line for coffee after a workout, and a woman who was shamed for wearing a tight dress to a wedding. Predictably, the “shaming” stories have birthed a slew of delicious response-to-shaming stories, often bearing headlines with the words “had the perfect response,” as in these from the last two months: “This agoraphobic woman had the perfect response to street harassment” and “Mom’s perfect response after a stranger ridicules her son’s Elsa dress.” In fact, if you search the phrase “had the perfect response” you’ll get over 196,000 results.
Why do people feel such a compulsion to scold or shame a stranger for a supposed infraction that’s minor or none of their business? When we scold or shame, we make two assumptions:
a) The person we’re scolding is someone who routinely (rather than rarely) acts without regard for society, and
b) it’s our job to teach them how to behave so they won’t do it again. In doing this, we miss a grand opportunity to give another human being the benefit of the doubt.
The young woman who was leaving the store may have had a lot on her mind, or she might have had a disability, or, as she said, she didn’t even have a chance to say “thank you.” In addition, I hold doors for people several times a day and never wait for an acknowledgement of my largesse; I feel lucky to be able-bodied enough to do it. It’s too bad the young man turned a potentially kind moment into a situation that left three people defensive on a sunny morning.
It’s too bad the young man turned a potentially kind moment into a situation that left three people defensive on a sunny morning.
It seems that parents of small children are the biggest targets for shaming, especially if their children misbehave or seem coddled. There was even a website a few years back called “Too Big for Stroller” featuring photos of kids who appeared too big to still be in a stroller, with the word “walk” Photoshopped across their heads (the site’s author said it was supposed to be funny but admitted being bothered by such a sight).
All of these instances of shaming reveal a skewed sense of priorities. It is our duty to report any suspected abuse or danger to a child. Passing judgment on a minor parenting difference distracts from this greater responsibility.
Last year, around September 11, I came upon an old essay on the internet by a woman who had moved to my New Jersey town from New York City soon after losing her husband in the 2001 terrorist attacks. Her upstairs neighbors (according to her essay) began pounding on her ceiling every time her new baby boy cried from teething. Finally, she sent them and the landlord letters telling them that she was both a lawyer and a 9/11 widow, and she would call the police if they harassed her again. In the conclusion of her essay, she wrote, “I only wish other women struggling to raise a child alone had such a trump card.” Have we really become so judgmental as a society that each of us needs a tragic tale in our arsenal to get strangers to halt their assumptions.
We would do well to remember that there are people all around us shouldering burdens more heavy than we can imagine.
There may be a good reason these “shaming” and “reverse-shaming” stories are so common now. In tough economic times, people are on edge and perhaps ready to let off steam. Even if the economy is supposedly improving, I know many who are struggling. Perhaps the young man who scolded the woman last week was worried he might be late to work, or maybe he had a lot on his mind too. We would do well to remember that there are people all around us shouldering burdens more heavy than we can imagine.
Unfortunately, when I witnessed the “etiquette shaming” incident last week, I didn’t let it go. I shouted back at the man, “We’ll all try to be perfect, like you.” Did I think that he needed a life lesson, too?
A generation ago, our parents used to preach a different sort of etiquette rule: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. It might be time to bring that particular point of politeness back. So the next time you have the urge to upbraid a stranger, instead try to smile or even look for a way to help. It might make someone’s day a whole lot brighter, you know?