I Own This Space

When it’s my turn, it’s my turn, and when it’s your turn, I have to wait.  We learned that in kindergarten.  We may not be as good as the Brits about queuing up, but by and large our kindergarten training kicks in.  Except when it doesn’t.  So here are a few of my recent pet peeves.

I was one of seven speakers at an event last week at the state Capitol.  The host person went first, and I was second.  It was clear from the printed agenda both when it was my turn and how long I was to talk and I obediently followed instructions, saying my three minutes worth.  I was the only one to do so.  The others, all of whom had been informed about the three minutes, rattled on until they had read their entire prepared speeches, frequently duplicating each other. The ”backdrop people” on the capitol steps stood patiently in the hot South Carolina sun through the whole thing. 

Later that day, I was part of a long Zoom meeting with seven of us needing to make a pitch briefly at the end for our particular project.  We were told we each had two minutes.  This time I was last.  After the others had gone on for three, five, six, seven minutes each, I quietly clicked on “leave meeting.” My day’s tolerance for inconsiderate behavior had been exhausted. Ronald Reagan’s line about “I paid for this microphone” lives on even when we have not, in fact, paid for the microphone.  (Reagan had.)

The same happens at any place where a line is formed.  Once a person get to the bank teller, or the checkout clerk, or whoever is processing the line, a sense of ownership of that time and space often takes over, with no consideration for the people behind you in line.  Take your time, change your mind, ask stupid questions.  You own this space and this person’s attention.

Yet another form that this sense of entitlement can be observed is in traffic.  When it becomes evident that this lane is going to be blocked ahead, people in that lane turn on their signals and persuade some kindly driver to let them merge.  Or not.  Some pass all the patiently (?) waiting cars in the adjacent lane until they get to the point of blockage and then turn on their signal to take a place in line ahead of all those they have passed. And someone lets them in.  I don’t.

Places like doctor’s offices and Social Security offices and doughnut shops and the Department of Motor Vehicles  have smartened up and don’t ask the question “Who’s next?”  Instead, they give you a number, and you don’t get your turn until your number is called.  But in much of the world, aggressors will do their best to get to the head of the line and keep their place once they get there until they run out of things to say. These various forms of rudeness are endemic in our individualistic society.

So how are we to respond?  I have a short fuse, which I try to keep under control. Looking at my watch may offer a gentle suggestion, if the perp is paying attention.  It doesn’t do any good to express or give in to anger when it won’t change things.  Time for the Reinhold Niebuhr prayer about the patience to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change those we  can, and the wisdom to know the difference.  But I also recognize that these assertive acts are a form of bullying, and tolerating bullying is a form of enabling.  It’s quite okay to say, I’m sorry, I was next.  Or not let that car that just raced past you into your lane.  He (it’s usually a he) can just wait until the last car he passed on that sprint has passed him. And above all, to raise our children, teach our students, and model good behavior as a way to  try to change a society of self-absorbed people into the kind of fellow citizens we want to live with.

Any other thoughts on how to respond to this highly contagious social disease?

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