Do two rudes make a polite?
Amy Alkon, a syndicated advice columnist and self-described "manners psycho," certainly thinks so. Just ask "Barry," a loud cell phone talker she encountered recently at a Starbucks in Santa Monica, Calif.
"He just blatantly took over the whole place with his conversation, streaming his dull life into everybody's brain," Alkon recalled in a telephone interview.
Among the personal details Barry shared that day — errands to run, plans for the evening — was his phone number, which Alkon jotted down.
"I called him that night and said, 'Just calling to let you know, Barry, that if you'd like your private life to remain private, you might want to be a little more considerate next time,' " she said.
These days it seems that as the rudes have gotten ruder — abetted by BlackBerrys, cell phones and MP3 players — the scolds have gotten scoldier. True, many people have grown complacent about having to endure others' musical tastes or conversations — or more accurately, half of their conversations. But among the disapprovers, withering glances and artfully worded comments have given way to pranks and other creative kinds of revenge.
On Broadway, the actors Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman took turns breaking out of character during a September performance of their show, A Steady Rain, to admonish an audience member who refused to silence his cell phone. Actor-singer Patti LuPone, too, has recently garnered some of the most enthusiastic ovations of her career for stopping shows to publicly berate people for similar offenses.
Celebrities have also been on the receiving end.
Last month, the Argentine opera singer Gabriela Pochinki was arrested at a French bistro in Manhattan when she allegedly scuffled with the restaurant's manager after several customers had complained about her loud cell phone chat.
Bravo, say people like Vinnie Bartilucci, a computer programmer from Lehigh Valley, Pa. Among his methods for countering loud cell phone talkers is to place a small recording device he carries for work on the table next to the offender.
Bartilucci did just that last summer at a McDonald's in Manhattan, after which the caller asked: What are you doing? (Which was punctuated by an expletive.)
"I said, 'Well, since you obviously want me to hear your conversation, I'd better keep a copy of it,' " Bartilucci recalled.
The ploy worked. The man got up and walked away, but the victory felt Pyrrhic.
"We've learned so much about personal freedom that we sort of work under the assumption that everything we do is perfectly acceptable, and God help the person who tries to limit us in any way," Bartilucci said.
To avenge or not to: a modern question
Historically, great thinkers have offered suggestions for dealing with irksome people. Usually, they have advised leading by example.
"The test of good manners is to be patient with bad ones," Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol wrote in the 11th century.
"Never express anything unbecoming, nor act against the rules moral before your inferiors," advised George Washington in his Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and in Conversation.
But just as there is nothing new about rude people, so too is there nothing new about public shaming — or fighting rudeness with rudeness.
Shannon Stamey, an administrative professional in Washington, has dubbed herself the "etiquette vigilante" on her blog, Disaffected Scanner Jockey.
Among her more popular posts, she said, were those in which she recounts her confrontations with rude people, like the time she asked a guy on the subway who was blasting offensive hip-hop music from his iPod to turn it down, please. He briefly complied, but cranked the volume again as he exited the train.
"I can't blithely ignore misogyny before I've had my coffee, even if it does have a catchy beat," Stamey wrote. "The Metro needs more people who are obnoxious enough to correct the rudeness of others."
Not so, say some manners arbiters. Those who subscribe to the age-old advice of our forefathers look askance at this kind of antic.
"It's been the plague of my life," said Judith Martin, who is better known as Miss Manners. "People very proudly tell me how rude they were to someone who was rude to them, and they expect me to pat them on the back."
Such behavior only "doubles the amount of rudeness," in the world, she said. Worse still, she said, it's not likely to work: Usually the revenge-seekers just alienate the offenders, making them defensive about whatever they were doing.
Better to fight rudeness with sticky sweetness, said Anna Post, a great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post and a spokeswoman for the Emily Post Institute (yes, there is such a place).
"You catch more flies with honey than vinegar," Post said. "Just because someone is rude, you still have a standard to hold yourself to."
But some people say that the "lead by example" mentality is too genteel for the 21st century, when handheld technologies make people noisier and less aware of their surroundings.
Lynne Brown, an office manager from Milford, Conn., recently had to listen to a stranger on her commuter train complain loudly by cell phone about his group therapy. When she saw him about a week later, she asked how the therapy was going. His response was not polite.
"Nobody makes a habit out of telling people how rude they're being," Brown said. "But if enough people did it, maybe some people would stop."
Joanna Golden, a sales representative at an ad agency in Manhattan, was talking loudly on her cell phone at a bar recently when she ignored a co-worker's request to "shut up."
"I don't care that much about what you're thinking," Golden said. She did, however, clarify that it wasn't just any call.
"My father's cat just died, and he's an animal lover," she said.
The co-worker, Eelain Steketee, said she had no qualms about accosting people for breaches of cell phone etiquette. "I get rude just because it will stop them from using the phone," she said.
Alkon, the advice columnist, shares this philosophy. Extreme shaming can work, she said, adding that the next time she saw Barry, the guy from Starbucks, he was talking on his cell phone outside the store. She likes to think she had something to do with that.
"There are people in this world who just don't care about you or anyone else," said Alkon, the author of I See Rude People (McGraw-Hill Cos.). "They are going to inflict themselves on you, and the only way to stop them is to show them there's a cost."