The other day I left my office to go downstairs. I passed through the corridor and went down the four steps that lead to a small landing around which you turn to find the main staircase. It’s a narrow stairs, and just as I found myself at the top, ready to start my descent, a well dressed middle-aged man at the bottom of the stairs had his foot raised to begin his ascent. Ok old-timer, you go first. I stayed put and watched him plod towards me. He reached the top, rounded the corner of the landing and continued on up the next set of stairs. What he did not do was acknowledge my presence in any fashion. There was no raised eyebrow of appreciation. There was no casual hand gesture of thanks. There was no verbal support or gratitude for my totally selfless act. There wasn’t even a fucking grunt or look.
As this well dressed stranger began up the four steps to the first floor, I found myself saying aloud “No, no, you’re grand. On you go. Good man yourself”. I said this with other people gathered at the foot of the stairs, and perhaps 3 feet away from the man at whom these words were heaved. I couldn’t help myself. I needed him to know that this slight, this tiny thing, had angered me greatly.
Now there was nothing at all wrong with the words. You could add them into a Priest’s sermon and the congregation wouldn’t bat an eyelid. However I managed to imbue those bland everyday words with enough aggression, indignation and sarcasm to fell a horse. I used the same roary tone a drunk who’s arguing with a barman might employ:
Barman – Look you’ve had enough.
Drunk – What?!
Barman – That’s it for tonight Chief.
Drunk – OH! Really?!
Barman – Come on. I’m doing this for your own good.
(The Drunk stands to make sure everyone sees the commotion, hoping someone might intercede on his behalf, and gesticulates wildly as he shambles out of the pub, shouting “thanks” as he leaves…)
Drunk – No, No, you’re grand. Good Man Yourself!!!
The syrupy sarcasm would have been enough, but this was not the whole story. My eyes were ring walk mean. My heart rate thundering. The primal fight or flight adrenaline dump wiring me for a confrontation. At that very moment I couldn’t countenance a worse man than this having ever lived. The very same man, who seconds prior to this outburst I had let up the stairs, as I politely waited like his personal valet.
Being the ignorant vandal he showed himself to be, he chose to ignore my sarcastic outburst and merely plodded forward, no doubt going upstairs to illuminate someone else’s life with yet another firework display of boorishness.
I stomped down the stairs, now in foul humour. He was all I thought about for the next portion of the day. If I was Dictator he, and his ilk, would be the first against the wall. You should be allowed to beat people for such slights. The World has turned to shit.
The thing is, I’m not alone in this sudden mood change over something so trivial. We’ve all done it. Perhaps not as outwardly noticeable as the example above, but we’ve all been there. I’ve tried to figure it out, and in certain circumstances, if the perceived social norms are not adhered to, we can tend to lose the run of ourselves temporarily. And this is most evident when we are sitting behind the wheel of a car.
There are rules to driving that do not come up on the test; the unwritten rules of civility and decorum that pertain solely to the road. For example, when driving in the countryside it is polite to wave to people you see walking on back roads. And by wave, I mean a country wave, which can be performed by simply raising the index finger from the hand gripping the highest point of the steering wheel. A city wave requires the whole hand. No one knows why. These are simply the rules.
If someone allows you into the lane into which you are trying to nudge, or lets you out at a junction, you had better wave or put on your hazard lights to show your thanks and respect. It is best to do both in case one of them wasn’t noticed. If you are the one letting the car into the lane and you see neither wave nor lights, you will not be able to help yourself from becoming momentarily apoplectic with rage.
This rage will find voice if you are alone in the car. Sometimes you will even narrate the whole manoeuvre. You see the car trying to get into traffic and despite yourself, because you have a bad feeling about this guy, you let him in ahead of you. As you are letting him in you are smiling, a shark like smile, that masks your tense muttering ok, in you come, but your eyes are intense. The eyes are saying if you fuck me over here, I am going to fucking lose it.
If the hazards come on, or there is a wave and a look into the rear view mirror that offers thanks to you and your magnanimous gesture, you can start to relax, and uncoil yourself. Then, and only then, will you loosen your vice like grip on the steering wheel you had contemplated pulling free and using as a weapon.
If there is no sign of respect or thanks it is a different story. You will exclaim, pointedly, and in varying degrees of off colour language. The more excitable of us might point violently at the car ahead as we are shouting, as angry at ourselves as we are the car in front, because remember, you had a bad feeling about this guy. You will curse, you might even hit the steering wheel, but you do not use the horn, because this is not a horn worthy offence for some reason. You will limit your abuse to impugning this man’s character, his passenger’s complicity in this offence, and using his licence plate as a reference, his county of birth.
From the other perspective, with you as a car trying to turn right onto a busy road, you will curse every single car that does not stop to let you out when they have a window in which to do so. I go for the audible narration – prick…asshole…yeah keep driving…oh you must be really busy…Meath bollox etc…
While this polite social contract is universal and hugely important while on the road, it is actively discouraged on the test, as my examiner informed me. He told me not to wave or acknowledge any niceties shown to me by my fellow drivers. I found it difficult not to wave and found myself doing so on several occasions, as much a hard-wired response, of which I am quite proud, as it was a fuck you to this stoic clipboard wielding judgey passenger. I did not like that man, sitting there leaving my high fives hanging, not laughing at my jokes or looking at the funny looking dog when I was poking him to do so. He just kept writing in that stupid journal of his.
We all feel that a person on a motorway driving slowly in the fast lane should be banned for life, or you should at least be allowed to ram them. There is no excuse, especially if you see me behind you driving with my knees, because I have balled both fists and am throwing imaginary punches at you, all while driving one foot behind your car. Is this in the test? No it’s not.
On small, busy city roads, if you are holding up traffic while you try to parallel park, you had better be able to park well, and swiftly. Do not misjudge the cut several times and have to start over. Again this should be a ramming offence. If you miss it the first time, you should have to give up and go around the block to try again. How else will you learn? And is this on the test? Is it fuck.
If you insist on playing very loud music with your windows down, polluting the space around you with your shite taste in music (and exponents of this aural assault always have shite taste in music) we should be able to attempt to throw things into that open window – half empty bottles of milk, lit cigarettes, water balloons, rats etc…
But the worst, the very worst offence, is someone driving towards you with their full beam headlights on constantly. This is inexcusable. Never mind the danger element, it is just sheer ignorance and an almost sociopathic disregard for everyone else on the road. There is not a single person reading this that hasn’t audibly cursed someone for doing this.
The worst thing about it is that you can see it coming. It’s a prolonged agony. Once they pass the point where everyone else dipped their headlights, hundreds of meters away, you know what is happening. You have time to ramp up your invective, starting slowly, and crescendoing into a torrent of screamed abuse as the offending party blissfully roars past you. Oh here we go. Headlights. Headlights. Headlights. Turn the fucking things down. Oh you ignorant bastard. You absolute prick! There’s no excuse for this you sonofabitch! You inbred fuck TURN YOUR FUCKING HEADLIGHTS DOWN……BASSSTAAAAAAARD!!!
Now while there is a lot of anger, frustration and cursing here, it is coming from a noble place. If you can identify with any of the situations above, know this: Your anger is the result of the impolite behaviour of others. Your social etiquette is so well ingrained, your moral compass so true, that anyone deviating from the high standards you set cause you to become enraged. There is nothing wrong with this. You are not a bad person. You’re a good person dealing with awful people.
Remember, if you get angry, it’s because someone else broke the rules of civilised society, and they’re probably a philistine, and deserve to be told as much. And seeing as we are all such polite, civilised people, we should be able to challenge anyone who offends our sensibilities to a duel. Yes, let’s bring back duels. Because it’s clear to me, that some of these people have got to go.
So here’s to the shouters, the cursers, the mad eyed and the fist shakers; the protectors and enforcers of good manners and civility on our roads.