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Southern hospitality 

Not long ago, after leaving one of my many places of employment, I found a note tucked under my car’s right-side windshield wiper that read: “EAT WORMS & DIE, YOU JACKASS.”

Hmm. I didn’t recognize the handwriting, so despite the biological improbability of “jackass” as an insult for a woman, I figured I’d done something to bug someone. But what? A specific complaint would have been more effective than this vague and infantile missive, which I ultimately wrote off as a silly prank. (It’s pinned now to my fridge under a car-shaped magnet.)

A couple of days later, I was stalled in the library parking lot behind a woman who had parked in the middle of the driveway to collect her son. In her haste to get out of a parking space perpendicular to me, a woman in a Very Large Vehicle first almost backed into and then nearly sideswiped me. My protective companion yelled “Watch it!” when she was just a couple of inches away, and she in turn pelted me with insults for being in her way. We all sat fuming as the oblivious boy ambled across the lot, and as soon as the way was clear, the VLV peeled out ahead of me.

Incidentally, the recent results of user-generated statistics on one popular “road rage” web site, www.monkeymeter.com, place Arkansas towns in the top five worst-driving slots. That road rage and aggressive driving are contributing factors to motor vehicle accidents is an uncontested fact.

To point out a possible relationship between stress and aggressive driving would not be illogical. Which is why I think it is interesting to note that Anderson & Anderson, the world’s largest provider of anger management facilitator training, has nine certified locations in the state of Arkansas. That might not seem like many for a whole state (they’ve got more offices in Los Angeles alone), but consider that in Minnesota — a state with twice our population — they have only one.

Speaking of anger management, I witnessed something unusual in Kroger the other day. I was moving down the main artery that runs along the registers. The man in front of me stopped to grab something from a display across the aisle, and his spontaneous action prevented a woman perpendicular to us from entering the main aisle. She was glaring at him openly and with an intensity I would probably reserve for the murderer of a beloved pet. When she was safely behind us, this grown man turned around, screwed up his face, and stuck out his tongue. At the time it was merely amusing; in retrospect, the man seems sage-like for his diplomacy in expressing his displeasure at the impatient woman’s behavior.

Indeed, the way we behave in public is a hotly contested issue. When news of New York City’s various efforts to legislate politeness was posted on this newspaper’s Arkansas Blog last year, the item elicited a barrage of personal opinion about what should and should not be allowed. Everyone naturally believes their own version of right and wrong is the one that should be adhered to, and everyone seems to be perpetually dissatisfied with the behavior of people around them.

Comments ranged from the expected “say please and thank you” and “take your screaming kids outside” to the more obscure “don’t park facing north on the southbound side of the street” and even “don’t build McMansions that block out the sun.” A lot of comments were more about personal tastes and prejudices than manners, like one suggesting fines for people who pronounce different words in certain ways. (Dialects differ regionally; most are a blend of British English and the native tongue of a given area’s subsequent immigrant populations. How is it fair to criticize someone for being from where they’re from? Many people are surprised to learn that it is Southerners with whom the British — standard-bearers of the prestige dialect in English — share the greatest similarities of pronunciation.) The whole thing eventually disintegrated into infighting between comment-posters, one of whom was greatly offended by the length of another’s post. It was, overall, an impressive display of intolerance. Southern hospitality indeed!

But most people are guilty of some prejudice, myself included. The other day, when I was trying to turn left onto Rodney Parham, a pearl-white Escalade pulled up to my right, blocking my view of all four lanes of traffic in the other direction. My feelings about conspicuous consumption and flagrant environmental irresponsibility aside, I drive a tiny car and always feel threatened by these behemoths. The driver was wearing a Yankees cap, and the defensive “Oh great” was welling up in my throat when, to my great surprise, he leaned out his half-open window and apologized for blocking my view. Southern hospitality, indeed.

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