An offensive adjective

Recently, I heard the term “rude” used to describe someone’s actions.  That reminded me that one of the worst things my mother would say about someone was “Boy, were they rude!”

What is rudeness?  The relevant definitions of “rude” from Merriam-Webster:

  • marked by or suggestive of lack of training or skill
  • lacking in social refinement or delicacy
  • offensive in manner or action

Although the dictionary’s definitions help us understand the concept of rudeness, the definitions do not say what specific actions are rude.

Throughout childhood, we are taught what actions are rude and what actions are polite so that we can be skilled in interpersonal relationships and not offend others.  But what differentiates actions that are rude and polite?

I remember a few years back when I first saw a person talking on a cell phone while in the company of another person. I was actually surprised to see a man talking on a cell phone while a woman was walking alongside him pushing a baby in a stroller.  The social norm that I was taught as a child was that you shouldn’t ignore the people you are with.  It is funny to remember my surprise, because nowadays I am not fazed when I see people talking on their cell phones while they are walking, dining, working, shopping, etc. with others.

What has changed? Maybe nothing!

The same social norms of politeness are alive today:  When we have to interrupt a conversation, we communicate with the affected people about what we’re doing and excuse ourselves.  Most people when receiving a call do the same thing:  They give some background to the people they are socializing with before they take the call, and then usually take the call elsewhere.  If people take the time to communicate the context of their actions, we usually move toward understanding and acceptance—and think of them as polite, not rude.

Back to the man and woman walking with the baby in the stroller:  Maybe they discussed before their walk that he might have to take the phone call, and she thought that was fine—not rude at all!


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