Thursday, January 28, 2016


Being a conscientious registered nurse in charge of the care of inpatients develops observational skills. The acute psychiatric units where I worked were dangerous places. Our attempts to avoid over-medicating patients to help rehabilitate them for social reentry entailed daily risks to our own personal safety. I worked in environments which were very different from the stereotypical psychiatric ward portrayed in fictional movies. Patients walking the edge of their psychoses can have sudden outbursts of violence, usually directed at staff.  My work in a residential hospice also required intense observation to prevent dying patients from experiencing unnecessary pain and isolation.

Now that I am retired, I still watch human behavior with the same intensity. Poor Peter listens to my ongoing clinical assessments as I drive or when we are just walking in public spaces. I am grateful that he often asks challenging questions about my spontaneous critiques of certain interactions and behaviors. I edit and maintain many of my thoughts in silence. 

We agree fully in one observation of urban humanity here in Greater Boston. "Sorry", whether expressed verbally or gestured/mimed from a car window, is the new "F**k you." 

Waiting on a subway platform is a good place to observe this. When the train pulls in and the doors open, inevitably someone will aggressively push into the car with no regard to anyone exiting or entering. That person often will utter "Sorry." in the process of elbowing and pushing. The same individual usually rushes to a handicap/elderly seat and immediately stares at his/her phone with earplugs inserted. I have been coaching Peter, who relies on a cane, on methods of getting the attention of these passive-aggressive airheads. An antidote for rude stupidity is a loud observation of it to the air of the train car.

Driving is the ultimate laboratory for testing my theory. So far, the evidence supports my premise fully. Intersections are reliable sites where you can find the "Sorry." move which really means "I know I cut you off, and I'm letting you know that I know you noticed." This is the wave and smile response of the offending driver, who sometimes mouths "Sorry" as they are doing their offensive maneuver. Sometimes it is simply a cheery wave as they proceed in front of you after cutting you off without a turn signal on the highway. 

Yesterday I was walking briskly to an empty self-check lane in the supermarket. A middle-aged man with an empty cart saw me approaching and immediately pushed his cart rapidly to the entrance of the check-out lane. And stopped. He had nothing to check out. He nervously mumbled "Sorry." and pretended for a second to look at a display of women's gossip mags by the check-out before rapidly skittering away with his empty cart. I have no idea what triggered this passive aggression. Was it the dozen eggs in my right hand? My wardrobe? My height? My eyeglasses? My facial hair? My pace? 

The problem with these dysfunctional discourtesies is simple in an ever-more-crowded world. It diminishes us as a social species. Each passive-aggressive move is another affirmation that we are each becoming less significant to each other as human beings. It doesn't take genius to figure out where that will eventually lead. 

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