A horrifying thought has begun to dawn on me ... I scare people. What I thought was good manners has caused folks to cross the street when I talk to them—even if I'm trying to help. I feel like that pathologically pleasant princess from the Disney movie Enchanted—chatting up strangers and smiling. Apparently, people hate that. (Yes, I know this is New York but I've had similar responses in Connecticut, Indianapolis, and San Antonio.) But because I was raised right, I can't help but bop from one spot to another doing good deeds. In the last couple of days, I've helped a woman rescue her credit card from a parking meter, aided a teenager in picking up the contents of her purse, and carried a couple of strollers up the subways steps (one stroller, two separate occasions, I'm not Superwoman). I've even given directions to at least four groups of tourists with a big grin plastered on my face. This is not a guilt trip or bragging. I know there are millions of people out there just like me who say "good morning" to everyone they see and make goofy faces at other folks' babies. And, I suspect you get the same dirty looks I do. You'd think I was running after people with an axe. (Click here to follow Raina Kelley)
When did being nice become a cover for criminal activity and/or possible derangement? If I hold the door for a man holding packages, people eyeball me like I'm picking his pocket. Don't even get me started on the time I nodded at a cop—I thought he was going to throw me to the ground and frisk me. That's why I jumped at the chance to write about Deborah Norville's new book, The Power of Respect—Benefit from the Most Forgotten Element of Success. I wanted validation of my belief that there's been decline of respect in modern life. Boy, did I go to the right place. A survey Norville cites shows nearly 80 percent of Americans agreeing that "a lack of respect and courtesy is a serious national problem." Eight out of 10 Americans don't agree on much, so this must be serious. Of course, 2009 has been a banner year for disrespectful behavior—what with Kanye West refusing to let Taylor Swift accept her own award at the MTV Video Music Awards, Serena Williams threatening to shove a ball down a line judge's throat, and, of course, Joe Wilson screaming "You lie!" in the middle of the president's speech.
I wanted this book to teach me how me how to get more people to see me as an actual person with feelings just like theirs—the definition of respect. It did tell me that Louisiana passed a law that requires "all schoolchildren to refer to teachers … and other school workers as "sir' or "ma'am.' " That's a good start. I'm usually suspicious of books with checklists at the end of each chapter, but The Power of Respect really sucked me in. Perhaps it's because I've been feeling vulnerable lately—squelching my inner Girl Scout just so people don't think I'm a predator. Or maybe I'm still mad about that family pretending their 6-year-old son was whizzing across Colorado in a Mylar balloon. That was low. Using other people's compassion as a tool to get publicity is pretty rude. And I was worried about that kid, too. But it's all part of our culture of distrust and suspicion. It's hard to obey the golden rule when you can't take anything anyone says at face value. I know people who are still waiting for the skeletons to pop out of Captain Sully's closet. And then of course, there's reality TV—hours and hours of backstabbing and treachery—a primer in the dark art of disrespect.
Still, this book isn't the last word on the death of respect. Norville is a bit breezy, defining respect so loosely that virtually any positive behavior, no matter the motive, is counted in the win column. And she avoids explaining how we got to this uncivil state of affairs in the first place. But she does makes a persuasive point that, saying "please" and "thank you" will improve your marriage, career, and make the world a better place. It would at least cut down on all that name-calling on cable news. But I am astonished that we're so far gone that we need "Respect Reminders" like "Being respectful to others makes them feel valued" and "Compliment your Spouse." I'm sure Deborah Norville meant her book to be a cheerful assessment of how treating people as you'd like to be treated will improve your chances at success. But I saw it as an indictment of our failings. Civility, helpfulness, and other attributes that contribute to a respectful society are all becoming scarce commodities. So as banal as Norville's book is in spots, it won't hurt people to read it. It might help. It helped me. I needed to be reminded that other people's problems matter just as much as my own. So, if you need help finding the Empire State Building or lugging your stroller up the stairs, don't worry. I'm not going to let a few rude looks stop me.