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Incivility trumps the empty dance of manners

  • 25 June 2008

I knew a man once who never spoke with the slightest courtesy or civility.

Whatever you said, be it hello, how are you, is that your real nose, or were you really once arrested for stealing a camel from a circus, the answers would always be forms of piss off, leave me alone, don't ask stupid questions, are you always such an idiot, or why did your people ever leave the sad wet rock on which they were born.

You think I am exaggerating but I swear I am not.

Yet he was the nicest guy imaginable. Many other people were as startled as I by the paradoxicity of the man. He was a pillar of his community, a veteran and esteemed employee of the brave nonprofit for which he had worked for 30 years, sober as a judge, married, graced with children, a taxpayer, even once a candidate for local government in his town, although he garnered only 90 votes, losing to a woman who taught math.

(Interestingly she died two weeks after taking office, and the town held a special election to fill her seat, and he lost that election also, this time to a man who taught spelling.)

I spent five years working with this man, and they were remarkable years, with many misadventures.

One time we were in a meeting when a very important person proposed a very stupid idea. I was sitting behind my uncivil friend, with two other people, and we looked at each other with fear and trembling, for we knew beyond doubt that he would pop a gasket, melt the polar cap, and heap mountainous abuse on his interlocutor.

Then we would all be summarily fired, and forced back to the toy factories from which we had come, weary of putting the ears on Mr Potato Head all day long.

Indeed he did explode, albeit in memorably calm and incisive fashion. He began obliquely by telling the story about how he had indeed stolen a camel, then observed that what the camel left behind in steaming redolent mounds could and should be compared to some ideas from some people, not to name names or anything.

I still savor the shimmering silence in that room when he finished speaking. A great silence is a remarkable sound.

There were many moments like that, most of them funny, although some were not so funny, such