The Pin – A Lesson on Rudeness

Well that was rude!

A dollar and a half is what I was owed after I bought my morning coffee, but that morning the barista had only given me a dollar back. I brought this to her attention: “Excuse me,” I said. “You gave me the wrong amount of change.” She apologized, told me she hadn’t been able to get much sleep lately because of exams, and gave me the rest of what I was owed. Before I walked away, she thanked me for being so polite about it. She had made the same mistake a few days earlier and the customer hadn’t been so nice about it; she said he started yelling at her and called her bad names.

But before we just simply say he’s an asshole, we would do well to consider the advice of the French philosopher, Emile Chatier. He wrote, “Never say that a person is evil; instead, look for the pin.” What did he mean? Well, what Chatier understood was that at its root, pain is the cause of rude behavior. The “pin” is just whatever is causing that underlying pain.

I found out later that that customer was a close friend of mine; His name was Kevin. I’ve known Kevin for a long time, and that’s not how he normally behaves; the Kevin I know was a really sweet guy. It turns out that at the time Kevin was going through a really hard time: his wife’s health was in severe decline; she was on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Devastating! The question is, if the barista had known this, would she have perceived him the same way? Probably not, right? Chances are she would’ve responded to him as if he were a small child throwing a hissy fit. What do I mean by that?

If you’re a parent (or if you’re not a parent, just imagine you are) what do you do when your kid – I don’t know – wakes you up in the dead of night with her crying? If you’re a good parent, you will try to figure out what’s wrong with her; you’ll grope around for the most innocent explanation for the behavior. “Maybe she’s hungry” “Maybe she’s cold.” “Maybe she wants to be held.” In other words, we look for the pin.

Notice how we’re never tempted to say, “Oh she’s just being an asshole”; and we never take it personally. This is because we generally take for granted that children don’t act out for no reason; we trust that there must be an underlying reason for the child’s behavior. Despite what our intuitions might tell us, the same is true for adults.

When the barista told me about what Kevin did, she spoke of him with such scorn and such disdain. This isn’t difficult to understand: from her point of view, Kevin was just a jerk; he didn’t seem to be acting under the influence of any inner demons…but we know that he was. When a person is rude it’s easy to demonize them. It’s easy to just call them an asshole and leave it at that. What we should strive to remember is that the common denominator of all rude behavior is pain. This is true even when it doesn’t seem that way.

As Elle Woods, from the movie Legally Blonde, said, “Happy people don’t just shoot their husbands.” It’s important to remember that behind the scenes of one’s life, there’s something going on that we know nothing about, that would explain the person’s behavior. Perhaps the asshole you encountered today had just lost his job; maybe he was found himself in the throes of financial trouble; maybe he failed a test that he worked his butt off for; maybe his loved one was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The lesson here is: Happy people don’t act in unsettling ways; rudeness is the behavior of the unhappy.

What’s my point? First, here’s what my point is not: I’m not trying to imply that rudeness is somehow justified; I think we should always treat others the way we want to be treated, and we should expect others to do the same. But what about when they don’t? How do we deal with people during their less than polite moments? We all know how frustrating it can be to deal with rude people (especially if you work in retail). For the most part, we find it frustrating because we tend to take it personally when someone is rude to us. We take it personally because we fail to acknowledge the pin. We never take the rudeness of kids personally because we recognize that they don’t act out for no reason. Imagine how much easier our lives would be if we would see the rudeness of adults in the same light. If we got into the habit of imaging the existence of “the pin” we’d have a much easier time keeping our sanity when dealing with rude people.


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