I'm always concerned by the sound of a shouting voice. My parents never had loud arguments, and name-calling was inconceivable. So it startled me when a customer in a store recently yelled, "You're a jerk!" at one of the employees. Then he repeated the insult and walked out.
I looked around, but nobody else seemed to be giving the incident a second glance. Should I have intervened and told the angry customer to settle down? That tactic backfired several years ago, and I ended up in the only shouting match of my adult life. The complainer was obviously spoiling for a verbal battle, and I took the bait. Sad to say, it happened in a post office.
Many social observers have pointed out that our current culture is very nonjudgmental about public behavior. The notion of community disapproval has been slowly eroding since the protest movements of the 1960s. Back then, many people expressed opposition to the established order by adopting alternative lifestyles and dress codes.
It doesn't automatically bother me when someone wants to be a nonconformist. But during the past 20 years, being different gradually became less important than being controversial. I'm seeing too much that is provocative or offensive for its own sake, as if the other person is daring me to object.
Words and phrases that used to be whispered in locker rooms are now on public display. The other day my daughter pointed to a parked car that was decorated with an obscene bumper sticker.
"Why did they do that?" she wondered. I didn't have an answer. And it's difficult to inspire respect and courtesy among our kids when so much of the media, especially radio, is actively promoting an in-your-face attitude. Howard Stern has proven that being outrageous can make you rich, and every major city in America has local "shock jocks" filling the airwaves with obnoxious banter. I realize that many of these programs are not meant to be taken seriously. Regardless of their intent, the stream of cynical comments and relentless put-downs eventually has a corrosive effect on everyday communication. When you have pre-judged all actions in a negative context, no one ever gets the benefit of the doubt. A clerk who makes a mistake screwed up because he's an idiot. The woman driving too slow in the car ahead is a freak. People you haven't even met are waiting to wreck your life.
It's hard to tune out all the negative messages, but I'm trying. Perhaps my efforts will start a new trend, so being positive and helpful becomes more hip than cursing and tearing people down. Now that would be something to shout about.
* Jeffrey Shaffer is a writer from Portland, Ore. His latest book is 'It Came with the House' (Catbird Press, 1997).