The Courtesy Control Malfunctions
Published: January 23, 2013 56 Comments

You might not know this unless we have met, but I am an exceptionally polite person.

If something annoying is going on, say an elephant is standing on my foot, I do not demand it move; I request, employing self-deprecating charm and a half-dozen qualifiers.

“Excuse me, Mr. Elephant,” I might say, “You probably do not realize this, you weighing 15,000 pounds more than me and me being an insignificant little writer, but you are standing on my foot and any minute gangrene will set in and Civil War re-enactors will have to swoop down and lop it off, which I know, from ‘Lincoln,’ will not be pretty. Do you think if it isn’t too much trouble you could take a moment and move a smidge?”

If a gang of drunken traders in a restaurant is carrying on so loudly that no one at the next table can have a conversation, I do not yell. I pick out the smartest trader (harder than you might think), go over and murmur, ‘I’m sure you’re not aware of this, but you have a very powerful voice. Do you think you could possibly take it down a bit?’ ”

Like that. Polite. Nonconfrontational. Diplomatic.

That is why I was amazed, a few months ago, when my mouth behaved as if commandeered by someone else, and a pretty blunt someone else at that.

It happened one rush-hour morning in an elevator in my building. About five of us were crowded in, including one of those moist, sticky little things in a stroller, when the elevator door opened to a woman with a dog the size of a pony. I don’t know why people living in little Manhattan apartments get enormous dogs — I guess because it is so much fun for the dog. Anyway, there they are, the woman and Trigger and the woman looks at this clown car configuration and innocently says, “Oh. Is it too crowded for us?”

And just like that I hear myself saying, “Yes.”

No polite preamble, no “Terribly sorry, I know your absurdly large dog wants desperately to urinate, but reliving the flood conditions of Hurricane Sandy so soon would be traumatic,” just a simple, direct, turn-down.

This didn’t matter to the woman and the Clydesdale — they trotted right in — but I was stunned: My Courtesy Control, which I had worked so hard to develop and maintain, had just malfunctioned. And, in the next few months, I noticed it happening again and again.

A cellphone zombie would be stopped dead in the middle of a narrow walkway, oblivious to the traffic piling up behind it, and I’d hear the mouth snap, “Move!”

A big guy would be blocking the entrance to a subway car because really, where’s a better place to stand when 50 people are trying to get through two little doors, and I’d hear the mouth snapping the order again, “Move!”

The Courtesy Control, thank God, seemed to still exist with friends. A friend could still tell me a story I had heard 40 times and I could politely feign fascination, which is a good thing, because, what with all the times I have carried on about my love life, I owe them.

But with everyone else there was a clear lessening of verbal inhibition. Thinking about it, I had a feeling it must have something to do with an aging brain. People in their 80s, it seemed to me, do sometimes tend to speak more bluntly.

Or maybe it was a sign of incipient dementia. A friend who I will call Libby had an elderly aunt who suffered from dementia, and once, at dinner, Libby was telling the family about the latest near-death experience of her aged cat when her aunt interrupted: “Libby,” she said, “Nobody wants to hear about your damn cat.”

This was the first time I had seen anything that might be an upside to cognitive failure, although, as I seemed to be functioning normally in the rest of my life, paying bills on time, remembering decades-old slights, that seemed unlikely.

What is more, I like the newer, blunter me. I sense a whole new world opening up.

“So, I must tell you about the cutest thing my grandchildren said —”


“I’m going to recite the entire wine list and every dish we ate at this undiscovered hotel off the coast of Somalia. We stayed a month —”


“You have to visit me on my mountaintop retreat where there are no people for 60 miles and the pitted dirt road will tear out your car’s undercarriage and you can be my source of entertainment for three days —”


I understand that to many of you this may sound as if I have become terribly rude and worse, am proud of it. Maybe you would like to use the Comments box to tell me I’m a dog hater, a child hater, not funny, and you cannot imagine how I ever got a job at a newspaper.

Am I interested?


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