By Rich Larson
As I endeavor to get The Next Ten Words off the ground, I have been fortunate to find bill-paying employment in the taproom of a newly opened local brewery, Imminent Brewing in Northfield, Minn. I am happy to report that the people in charge are running a great business with wonderful product and a well-trained and hard-working staff. I strongly recommend you try the Well Grounded, which is a cold-press coffee porter (while it lasts – it’s a small batch specialty beer) or Betty Lou’s Brown Ale when you come to visit.
One of the rules, though, is that you can’t smoke on the premises. There is a lovely patio out in front of the brewery that has been declared a smoke free environment. And this, my friends, is where our story begins…
I was on the patio during a shift last weekend, clearing some empty glasses, when I came upon two gentlemen lighting cigarettes. The following is a transcript of the exchange that ensued:
Me: Hi, guys. Sorry, but you can’t smoke on the patio.
Gentleman #1: Oh, okay. Sorry.
Me: No need to apologize.
Gentleman #2: So where can I smoke?
Me: Off the grounds, so on the other side of the fence.
Gentleman #2 (agitated): But I can’t take my beer out there.
Me (agitated): Hey, Pal, sorry. It’s policy.
Gentleman #2: That’s what they said at the Nuremberg Trials.
Me (laughing condescendingly): Yeah, I won’t let you smoke because I’m just following orders.
Gentleman #2 (clearly unhappy): So what do I do?
Me (making and holding eye contact with Gentleman #2 for too long, with a stern look on my face): You can’t smoke on the patio.
Throughout the exchange, Gentleman #1 was trying to diffuse the situation, telling both of us to calm down (and he was, of course, absolutely right). After I was sure I had made my point, I looked at Gentleman #1, attempted a smile (which may have come across as sarcastic), shrugged, mumbled “sorry,” and went about clearing more glasses.
In Minnesota, exchanges like this used to be extremely rare, although they have always been more common in establishments that serve alcohol. The stereotypical passive-aggressive nature of most Minnesotans makes us conflict averse. I, however, am not a typical Minnesotan, and I prefer to meet these situations head-on, particularly when I feel like I have just been called a Nazi.
That’s beside the point, however. Or maybe it’s not.
See, even as I attempt to explain the situation as evenly as possible, I feel the need to illustrate the point where Gentleman #2 escalated the situation and not own up to the fact that I may have reacted poorly to his agitation. After all, smoking is still legal in the State of Minnesota, and he simply wanted to exercise his right. Still, I stopped being polite when I rudely called him “Pal,” and sternly invoked the policy. I was probably the person in this exchange who dispensed with civility, and it happened quickly. I got mad at this guy as soon as he talked back to me, and I walked away feeling proud of myself for a) having walked away at all, and b) for not using the words I wanted to use when talking to this guy.
Even now I can feel the cluster of F-bombs, “assholes,” and “dipshits” tamped down deep in my soul. This is a little beside the point, but the people who have experienced my demeanor after midnight in previous bartending positions know that it’s a powerful cluster indeed.
But, seriously, what do I want? A medal? Really? I’m proud of myself for not unloading on this guy? He was a patron at my place of employment in a very public area, where people and kids of all ages were close by. I managed to keep a small modicum of civility and meet my basic responsibilities, and somehow I feel like a hero.
That’s clearly a problem, but I will also say I’m clearly not alone. We’ve developed a problem in this country. As Malcolm Gladwell, a Canadian writer and journalist who has contributed to The New Yorker for many years recently stated, “Americans have stopped talking to one another, and now only talk at each other.” We are losing the finer skills of conversation. We are losing the regular skills of listening. We are losing the idea of civility.
It’s tough to pinpoint when this all started. Certainly the popularity of social media has contributed mightily to the problem. But before the rise of Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, we had opportunity to make comments on posted articles and call in to radio shows. Hiding behind the veil of anonymity, we happily let our opinions fly, no matter how vile another might find them. It’s one of our rights as Americans, isn’t it?
Television has something to do with this as well. We’ve begun a third decade in the era of Reality TV, and whether it’s watching people remake their homes, live lavish and slightly scandalous lifestyles, or compete to become the last person standing (with or without clothes on), conflict is, of course, a staple in all of these shows. I mean, just watching two people have a conversation is horribly dull and will not generate ratings. That’s My Dinner with Andre. Or PBS. Even those of us who feel superior to the rest of you because we don’t watch The Unbridled, Neighbor-Swapping Housewives of Petaluma are probably guilty of watching a news show on whichever network spoon feeds us information coated in our own personal point of view, and can’t wait to watch the things Megyn Kelly and Alex Jones say to each other at 7 p.m. on a Sunday night on standard broadcast television.
Our leaders have done very little to help the situation over the last few years. President Ronald Reagan and then Speaker-of-the-House Tip O’Neill used to drink scotch together, after hours in the White House, searching for common ground between the two of them where they could work together. Today, our leaders sneer at each other. They undermine legislative agendas rather than look for compromise. One need look no farther than President Trump’s Twitter feed for the most recent example, but I can also show you footage of President Obama eviscerating Donald Trump a few years ago at the White House Correspondents Dinner.
It begs the question: where does this all lead? If we’re losing civility in our day-to-day lives, that means we’ve already lost a lot of respect for each other.
I was talking to a friend the other night (he was drinking scotch; I’m a bourbon guy), and we were talking about this very topic. He said, “You know, back in the day, things were done for the common good. That idea doesn’t really exist anymore.”
I think he’s right. Society has become so self-centered that we’ve lost track of the fact that we are, in fact, a community. Whether we like it or not, we really do depend on each other for basic needs and survival. We depend on each other to make decisions for the common good. When that idea is removed, we become selfish, polarized and entitled.
That’s where we are these days.
This is not meant to be a preachy column so much as it is a good, long look in the mirror. You know those really annoying bumper stickers that stare at you when you’re waiting at a red light and say, “Be the change you want to see in the world?”
I used to love a good debate. I would talk for an hour with someone who disagreed with me, not because I wanted to change their mind, but because I wanted to explore my own reasoning and strengthen my beliefs and values. When did I lose that? When did I just simply assume that those who disagree with me are ignorant and selfish? How did that happen?
Next time I catch you smoking on the patio, I’ll be much nicer when I ask you to put your cigarette out. You can question why I’m asking you to do it, and I will try very hard to keep my composure. When you finally do acquiesce I will be gracious to you for understanding the “No Smoking” rule is for the common good. Maybe that might start a trend.
I mean, probably not. I don’t think that one conversation is enough to change the world. But we have to start somewhere.
This article was edited by Rachel Wohrlin