But...but, I was about to thank you! I always thank people! That's not who I am, I swear! That's not how I was raised! And now...you've ruined my day.
Someone wrote the following into the NY Times' etiquette column:
I was heading out of a local bakery, lost in thought. It turned out that a lady had opened the door for me, and I failed to register her kind gesture. When I turned back to thank her, she curtly said, "You're welcome," before I could speak. What do you make of this?
Oh, cruel, cruel! The unkindest cut of all! Is there anything worse that knowing in that moment that you have been judged and found wanting? That a lifetime of careful courtesy and people-pleasing and scrupulous good manners is erased in a moment, and you've somehow let down yourself, your mother, and your generation? For the courteous doormats amongst us? Not hardly.
Of course, you also come away hating the entitled, "you're welcome" smart aleck - yes, he is despicable, too. And then you have anger and shame and guilt all roiling inside you and it takes a lot of ranting (which no one ever sympathizes with!) and a lot of pudding to make it right. Do I speak from experience? Could be. Let's take a visit to the grocery store a few days ago. I had three items - a sponge, an onion, and a bag of navy beans. Since the guy behind me had only a quart of milk, I ushered him ahead of me. Then, since the woman behind him had a fussy baby and only a couple of cans, I waved her ahead too. Finally, I was about to place my own few provisions on the conveyor belt, when a belligerent old woman behind me said, resentfully, "If someone behind me had only one thing, I'd let her go ahead of me! It's the polite thing to do!" Of course, I gritted my teeth and let her put her Carnation milk down ahead of me - she swept by me imperiously, like she'd taught me a thing or two - but I was fuming for the rest of the day.
Obviously, I suffer from the sin of pride. Pride in my own righteousness, which is pride of ancient proportions. And the point of courtesy is to help others and make the world run more smoothly, not to cover yourself in low-rent laurels every time you hold a door. In my saner moments, I know this. But when I feel the sting of unfair judgment, it almost seems as though there is no point at all. I have a terrible temper, but it's a weird, unpredictable kind of temper that doesn't come out at appropriate times and then I snap without warning about strange things. The time I screamed at the old woman is legendary in my family. It happened a few summers ago, when my brother and I were walking one hot summer day through Lincoln Center. I accidentally stepped on the back of an old lady's canvas huarache - what we call "giving a flat" in our house. I apologized at once. But she appeared unmollified, turning to scowl at me as she pulled the canvas over her heel.
"I said I was sorry," I repeated, feeling the rage begin to heat my cheeks. She glared again and began to walk away.
"Did you not hear me?" I said, raising my voice. "DID YOU NOT HEAR ME APOLOGIZE, MADAM? MADAM?" I'm told that here I chased her down the sidewalk. "IN SOME CIRCLES, MADAM, IT'S CONSIDERED COURTEOUS TO ACKNOWLEDGE AN APOLOGY FOR A COMPLETELY UNINTENDED INSULT. BUT, OH, OH, I SUPPOSE THE SIN OF ACCIDENTALLY STEPPING ON SOMEONE'S HEEL IS WORSE THAN PUBLICLY REJECTING A SINCERE APOLOGY? I TRIED! I TRIED! IT'S PEOPLE LIKE YOU WHO ARE DRAINING EVERY DROP OF KINDNESS AND CIVILITY FROM THE WORLD! YOU! YOU!"
The old woman had long since moved down the street. Everyone else had heard, though. My brother gently pulled me away. Later, of course, he related the whole thing to everybody and they thought it was hilarious and off-putting in that "oh, she's nuts" sort of way. People ask me a lot why I can remain calm in the face of actual problems or or insults, but little breaches of courtesy like this set me over the edge. I think it's because it's a reminder that, as the original question-poser said, there are no second chances. You're not judged on a lifetime but on a moment, which is an infuriating reality, and a hard one for those of us too conditioned to please others. That, and that "your welcome" thing is just obnoxious.
Social Q's [NY Times]