A Fine Line
Frequent comments I hear from Chileans who have travelled to the U.S. go something like this: Everyone is so polite there. They say, “Excuse me” if they brush your elbow in the supermarket line. They know how to take turns. This implies that these rules of public conduct are rarely followed here.
When two or more gringas get together here, we complain about aggressive Chilean drivers and sales clerks in stores chatting in groups or sending text messages while we wait to be waited on. Or how about the passengers shoving into the metro car before I’ve had the chance to get out? I could list many more frustrations – but I won’t. Instead, I want to explore how I handle these situations.
I now know that I must walk straight up the salesclerk, look her in the eye and ask if she is busy. I also know I can't reform pushy drivers and, though, try as I may to keep my cool when someone cuts in front of me, I often blast on my horn to point out their lack of consideration and release my anger.
What works best for me, when I remember, is to practice what I preach, modeling the behavior I’d like to see from others. I smile and give a thumbs-up to the driver who slows to allow me to change lanes and sometimes a grateful driver will signal me in thanks. All this sounds gentle and polite, but, living in this crowded city tests the best of my intentions. To survive I've had to become more assertive, but when does assertiveness cross the line into rudeness?
The other day, ticket in hand, I walked up to the metro turnstile for seniors. A woman in front of me was having difficulty with her ticket. A metro employee was trying to help her, but she kept fiddling around. I guess I was in a hurry (fatal) and walked around her, mumbling an “excuse me” and inserting my ticket. She apologized saying, “I’m not from here.” That incident has bothered me for days. Why didn't I stop and offer to help?
As children, most of us slowly acquire the ability to empathize, to put ourselves in the other’s shoes. I consider myself an empathetic person, but, in the day-to-day ordeal of preserving my space and my rights in the big city, I may fail to consider the other. Sometimes I need a good shake-up, an incident like that in the metro or someone pointing it out, to realize I've been overly focused on myself and thus missing opportunities for kindness or just plain civility.
Living in another culture, it’s a challenge to stick to one’s principles and not slip into a “When in Rome…” attitude.