Jane Bradley: Triumph of rudeness as polite people do nothing

He looks happy but if someone comes and takes that newspaper away ...
He looks happy but if someone comes and takes that newspaper away ...
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Politeness may be going out of fashion, but taking a person’s newspaper is beyond the pale, says ‘gobsmacked’ Jane Bradley.

The other morning, I took half an hour out to sit down and enjoy a flat white, flicking through a newspaper kindly provided by the cafe.

After a few minutes, a woman, smartly dressed and middle-aged, walked up to my table, where I was sitting alone, and proceeded to tug the paper out from under my nose.

I was so stunned, I didn’t know what to do. When I eventually managed to splutter that I was actually still reading it and would she mind awfully putting it back, she told me that as I had looked away from the paper (open, in front of me at a feature I was enjoying with my coffee cup weighing down a corner) to reply to a message on my phone, I clearly wasn’t reading it and therefore, she was going to take it. No amount of protestations – including offers of other papers lying unused on adjoining, empty tables, prevented her from rudely snatching my reading material away and stalking off with it to her seat. I was gobsmacked.

Nicer-natured, more forgiving friends have pointed out that she may have been having a particularly bad day, or she could perhaps be on the autistic spectrum and not realise the impact of her behaviour. For various reasons, I don’t think the latter is true. She may well have been having a bad day, but whether or not that was the case, I truly believe she was just a rude, entitled woman who caught me off guard and got what she wanted without question.

I spent the next ten minutes regreting my cowardly behaviour, crossly thinking of retorts I could have made, how I could have prevented her from swiping my reading material – whereas I had actually just rolled over and let her win.

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Instead, I downed my drink and passive-aggressively muttered to her on my way out that she wasn’t actively drinking her coffee at that particular moment, so therefore was it okay if I just took it? However, I failed to go through with my retaliation and wandered off, tail between my legs, to work.

I have spent the days since beating myself up about about my complete lack of any ability to stand up to bullies. My colleague, on the other hand, has no particular problems with tackling people when their actions annoy him. He has had no fewer than two seagull-related set-tos with strangers in the past few months, when he has reprimanded fellow seaside-goers for feeding the vulture-like creatures. It’s a subject he feels passionately about.

“As I get older, I find it increasingly hard to bite my tongue,” he admits (we are exactly the same age). “But as soon as I do it, I wish I hadn’t. It’s this totally British disease, you don’t want to get into an argument with people, even when you know you’re in the right.”

It perhaps is a peculiarly British disease. In other countries, they don’t seem to have this problem. On visiting a tourist attraction in Bucharest on a recent visit to Romania, I got told off by the surly staff three times in the space of five minutes. They were irritated that I had asked for a ticket when what I should have requested was a tour; I’d creased the money in my wallet, rendering it less aesthetically-pleasing; and I’d asked for a small, half sugar in my coffee, when clearly the right thing was to have a whole one. Cue a lot of head-shaking, tutting and eye-rolling.

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No, Romanians never have a problem with telling you when you’ve done something wrong and I find it quite endearing – and brave. To be fair, the reprimands are more of a Communist-era throw back, usually from the older generation, while younger workers in cafes, restaurants and so on offer something more like the “have a nice day” American-style service.

However, in March, a French waiter working in Canada tried to sue his former employer for violating his human rights by firing him, after he had been allegedly “combative and aggressive”. His argument was simple: he was French. Guillaume Rey argued that his “direct, honest and professional” demeanor was how he had been taught to act while working in France. However, his former boss claimed that Rey had nearly reduced a colleague to tears as a result of his actions.

Was he right? We all know that the North Americans are particularly OTT when it comes to the service industry. I have an American uncle who introduces himself by name to any waiter or waitress who serves his table and expects them to be his best friend by the end of the meal. It is lovely – my uncle is a very jovial, chatty person – but can a European be expected to react in the same way?

While there is undoubtedly a difference in expectation, depending which country you are in, I believe there is a base line of politeness that should not be crossed – and stealing someone’s newspaper from under their nose definitely crosses it.

A study carried out last year in the US found that three quarters of the population believe that people are more rude than they were 20 or 30 years ago, while only four per cent say that people are less rude. No such similar survey exists on this side of the Atlantic, as far as I can see, but I would imagine the results would be similar.

This is not a good, or healthy, way to exist. Being nice, friendly and polite doesn’t take much effort – whether it is in our cultural DNA or not. On a side note, while the whole cafe-newspaper incident was undoubtedly irritating, I am cheered by the fact that someone was willing to get into a spat over a hard copy of a daily newspaper.

Who said print journalism was dead?