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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

In Search of Civility: Say Goodbye to "Hello"?

Running errands the other morning, I encountered a pair of Bieber-haired youngsters - maybe 16 years old. The two boys, in the uniform befitting their age - hoodies, skinnyish man jeans, iPhones, and 1980's-inspired terry cloth wristbands - were making their way past me in the grocery store parking lot, and so I said "hello" to them. One of the boys barely raised his eyes to mine, seeming to grunt an acknowledgement of my greeting, while his companion responded with a sheepish "hello" minus eye contact. They continued on their way, but as I got into my car, I was put off.

As an actual, native Washingtonian, I've watched the steady decline of friendliness in this area during my lifetime. And now I've found that my personal observations are now being supported by hard fact - well, if you call Travel + Leisure magazine's annual survey of America's Favorite Cities "hard fact", which I do. While we have great classical music, wonderful historical sites and monuments, and excellent theatre (take that, NYC!!), we're not doing so well in the friendly locals department. In fact, out of the top 20 rudest cities, the DMV is ranked as No. 5. Ouch!

So why are we so unfriendly? Well, I've got my theories:

  1. Tourists - The White House, the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court. There aren't too many places where you can experience so much history and on such a grand scale and all located within blocks from each other. Add to that our clean and easy to use Metro and it's little wonder that we are a tourist town. But we're also a town of bureaucrats who happen to work in those historical landmarks, and who are running down the out-of-order Metro escalator steps two-by-two to get that last train home so we can pick up our child at day-care before we're charged extra and who, then, can be forgiven for throwing you a nasty look and some attitude whilst you and your tourist family are blocking the bottom of said Metro escalator as you attempt to read the signs to figure out on which side of the platform you should wait.
  2. Very Important People - Right now as I write this I'm sure that in some hotel bar or at some restaurant, some poor, hard-working hostess is getting a version of "but, don't you know who I am" from some political appointee or wunderkind of the lobbying crowd. You can't drop a Congressional Quarterly off of a roof without hitting some undersecretary of X or assistant deputy Y, or Senator So-and-So. We have more "The Honorables" per square mile than there are "Smiths" in all of Virginia. To throw a dinner party in town, you need to have your own equivalent of the White House Social Secretary. Very Important People are very demanding and, not always, very nice. So what's worse than Very Important People? That's easy - the people who work for Very Important People. They'll mow you down as they speedwalk past you nervously thumbing away on their Blackberry. And no, don't expect them to hold the door open for you as they race into Starbuck's for the Very Important Person's morning/afternoon latte.
  3. Blame it on the Beltway - Ah, the Capital Beltway, that majestic 64-mile stretch of highway encircling Washington, DC like a belt, a thorny belt. Almost everyone living in and around the Nation's Capitol will have at least one bad Beltway story. It'll usually start something like this, "So I was on my way to[work/church/the mall] and then the traffic stopped for [10 minutes/30 minutes/60 minutes]." Try having a good morning or a good evening when you know that it can be ruined by the inevitable snarl on the Beltway.
Just think of it - in just one second you can make someone feel special, feel good, feel valued by simply greeting them with "Hello." and maybe we can get Washington, DC back on the Friendly list while we're at it - I'm just saying!

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