Of fictitious benevolences

Day four of my June writing experiment, “30 for 30 in under 30,” in which I write thirty randomass essays with minimal editing, to be finished in under 30 minutes.

Samuel Johnson once described good manners a “fictitious benevolence” – little more than airs we put on to make ourselves seem better and kinder than we really are, to mask from others our true, terrible, nasty little selves.

I don’t know if I’d go that far, but I have been pondering this week just what constitutes good and bad behavior. And who gets to decide which is which.

Last night, my roommate Noe and I had a long conversation about where and how and whether it is acceptable to clip one’s fingernails. In a restaurant? Definitely not. In a workplace? We weren’t so sure. That sound … that unmistakable SOUND just sets my teeth on edge.

Is it OK to clip in one’s office with the door open, allowing the nasty sound to carry into the work spaces of unwitting colleagues? I said absolutely not; she wasn’t so sure. And how about if the door is closed? I once saw a woman clip her nails while seated in a coffee shop, a mere few feet away from a group of people eating lunch. They were so disgusted they threw their half-finished meals out and left.

My other roommate and I have been debating, lately, the ethics and standards of tipping in the United States. When is a tip compulsory? When is it discretionary? How much is deserved? Are tip jars presumptuous? I’ve decided I tip way too much and he tips rather too little, but in the absence of a clear and narrow norm, who is more right?

Driving home from the coast through rush hour traffic yesterday afternoon, I found myself in the middle of a more personal and harrowing kind of little social dilemma. I’d been driving for two hours by the time I hit I-5 and I was hot, tired and had to pee. I was waiting at the very last bad, long light before I coasted into the home stretch of my long-ass journey to Emerson Street. Then, as soon as the light turned to Go, this gross little Toyota with a bunch of bumper stickers darted out from a parking space on the side of the road right in front of me and I really almost hit it. I leaned on my horn, enraged, and then the hippieish lady driver leaned her head out the window and looked at me with an utterly confused look upon her face. She was completely blocking eastbound traffic at this point and seemed unable to decide whether to complete her unsafe move or to slink back to her spot on the side of the road and let me pass. Indecisiveness is a quality I loath in others, so I decided to help her out by gesturing disgustedly and screaming, “GOOOOO!”

After which point she did. And after which point my brain caught up with my spinal cord and I realized – horrors! – that the woman I had just shouted so angrily and dismissively at was none other than my pilates teacher.

My sweet, sweet, little Zen-like pilates teacher, and I terrified her half to death with my angry ministrations from behind the wheel of a large, intimidating champagne-colored Buick.

I am both ashamed and indignant, and seriously just considering never going to her class again to avoid all that surefire awkward. My friends advise me to simply pretend it never happened. But I’d rather do so from as far away from her peace-loving presence as possible.

Economists divide our daily habits and our ideas about our daily habits injunctive and descriptive norms: the former the behaviors society tells us we should hew to and the latter the behaviors we actually exhibit in our daily lives.

Which are the bad actors in all the above examples, and which are merely victims of prudish standards of social conduct? It’s a toughie.

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