We tend to be perturbed and put off by impoliteness. But perhaps there are some aspects of rudeness we should appreciate more fully.
In his book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell describes the deadly potential of excessive politeness. He describes the crash of Korean Air Flight 801 into a hill while on its approach to an airport in Guam in 1997. The crash resulted in the deaths of 223 people. In addition to a series of misfortunes, including bad weather, outdated charts, and an offline warning system, Gladwell argues that blame should also be placed on the co-pilot who was afraid to question the poor judgment of the pilot. Summarizing his ideas for Fortune magazine, Gladwell stresses, “What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical…. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.”
Gladwell also describes the 1990 crash of Avianca Flight 52 in Long Island, New York. The plane ran out of fuel while circling JFK Airport, resulting in 73 deaths. Gladwell blames this crash on the failure of the flight crew to assert themselves enough while they were running out of fuel and the air traffic controllers told them to keep circling.
In 2008, when Yesinia Guitron was a 26-year-old single mother working at a Wells Fargo Bank in St. Helena, CA, she began receiving complaints from customers that they were receiving debit cards they had never requested and that they were being charged for accounts they had never opened. Before Guitron began working at the bank, she was paid to attend a month-long training session which included great emphasis on ethics in banking. She reports, “We were told that we need to follow the rules, and if we see something suspicious, we should report it.”
So Guitron began to report what she was seeing. According to Alina Tugend, writing in the Spring, 2017, issue of California magazine, “She called the Wells Fargo ethics hotline. She told her manager. She told human resources. She spoke up in meetings, despite the acrimony directed at her by some of her colleagues.”
No one else at the bank appreciated her ruffling feathers or causing a disturbance. They wanted her to be well-mannered and demure. So in 2010, after nearly two years at the bank, Guitron was fired for failing to meet her quarterly sales goals and for insubordination. But a few years later, her Wells Fargo Bank branch was found to be part of a nationwide ethics scandal that included the creation of over 2 million unauthorized customer accounts.
There are times and places for impoliteness! When life is on the line or when justice is on the line, it is better to “make a scene” than to be mannerly and demure.
As a Christian, I always seek guidance from how Jesus handled himself in the situations I wonder about.
Was Jesus ever impolite? The Pharisees certainly viewed him as impolite the various times he broke the Sabbath rules — doing such things as healing in the synagogue on a Sabbath. He was also impolite when he overturned tables and chased merchants out of the temple. When life was on the line or justice was on the line, Jesus refused to be mannerly or demure.
How did Jesus handle impolite people? In Messy Spirituality (p. 31), Mike Yaconelli points out, “Jesus responds to desire. Which is why he responded to people who interrupted him, yelled at him, touched him, screamed obscenities at him, barged in on him, crashed through ceilings to get to him.” Though rudeness may bother us, I want to learn to be like Jesus in looking beyond a person’s rude actions to the person’s heart, and I want to be like Jesus in valuing life and justice ahead of seeming mannerly or demure.
—Tom Tripp is the Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Colusa.