Monday 16 June 2008

king of the world...

I think it was Jean Paul Sartre who said that "L'enfer, c'est les autres": Hell is other people. On the whole, I prefer to think that he's wrong, but almost every day, my faith in people's inherent goodness is sorely tested. Of course, if we're looking for evidence of man's inhumanity to man, there's the big, obvious stuff like wars, preventable diseases, terrorism, oppression and things like that. You only have to read a newspaper or watch the news on the telly to see what a godawful mess mankind is making of the world. Actually, though, it's the little things that trouble me the most; the things that people do to each other on a much smaller scale; the small acts of rudeness or inconsiderate behaviour that slash at my optimism and slowly infuse me with cynicism. At work, it's those people who think nothing of putting other people down so that they might advance themselves. This is anathema to me. If the only way to get ahead is to climb over other people, then I don't want anything to do with it. Actually, I don't believe it's the only way, and I think one of the great achievements of C's career is that she is moving forward on her own merits. Sadly, this doesn't appear to be something that is valued where I work, and one of the things I detest most about my job is that the people who do this, the people who are clearly pursuing their own interests above anything else, are often the people who seem to be getting ahead.

It's not just the snakes in my office who get me down though. I can compartmentalise my job easily enough: work is not the centre of my life and I refuse to let it upset me. When I leave the office in the evening, I am more than capable of putting the behaviour of a few idiots behind me. Sadly, it seems that idiots exist outside the hermetically sealed world of my office too, and I can't so easily ignore them. They're all over the roads, for starters. I like to think of myself as a considerate driver: I don't drive too fast, and I try to retain an awareness of other people on the road. I let people out at junctions, I slow down to create a gap to let cars change lanes, I assidiously thank people who do the same for me. Is it too much to expect that other road users might extend the same courtesy to me? Apparently it is. I'm sure that most people are essentially considerate drivers, but it's always the other ones that stick in my mind: that guy who forces his way out of a junction; the car that pulls over a red light and forces you to brake and wait when your light has long since turned green; the person who elbows their way into the gap you have left for them and doesn't even acknowledge your presence with a simple gesture of thanks, as though that space magically and conveniently appeared just when they needed it most, and had nothing to do with my consideration for them at all. It's the air of entitlement that gets me: the road is there purely for their benefit and every other road user's needs are of secondary importance. They know when they are turning off on that roundabout, so why bother to indicate? Why be concerned that the lack of a signal has meant that other people have had to wait before pulling out? Sure, it only delays me for about 10 seconds, but it's a needless 10 seconds, and it's not the wait that's the issue for me - it's the arrogant assumption by that other driver that they are the most important thing on the road and to hell with everyone else.

I can't even escape this kind of behaviour in the gym either. I went for a swim the other night and was pleased to see that the pool was relatively quiet and I was only sharing my lane with one other swimmer. I think it's important in these circumstances to have an awareness of the needs of your fellow swimmer: if the person behind me in the lane is swimming faster than me, then I try to keep an eye on where they are relative to me and wait between lengths to let them through so that they are as little inconvenienced by me as possible. By the same token, if I am the faster swimmer, then I also try not to crowd or hurry the person in front of me. It doesn't take a great deal of energy to be alive to the other people in the lane, but because I display this consideration myself, I expect other people to do the same to me. On the whole, people are pretty good. They may not realise at once, but over the course of a few lengths, I find that I generally reach an unspoken understanding with the other swimmers in my lane as we grow accustomed to our relative swimming paces. Some people are terrible though, and the guy I was swimming with the other night was the worst of all: at the end of every length, and irrespective of how close behind him anyone else might be, he turned and kicked off. There were three of us in the lane, and both of the other swimmers were moving faster, which meant that we had to interrupt our swim on a regular basis to deal with the issue of how to get past him. The other swimmer took the approach of stopping before the end of the length and turning around before he had the chance to touch and turn. I took the approach of either dipping into the lane next door (when it was clear) to overtake him, or trying to time my swim so that I hit the end just as he did and turning and kicking off before he had a chance to react. I don't even think that this guy was being deliberately inconsiderate as he swam, but I do think he was guilty of being totally unaware of anyone else's needs but his own, and I find that kind of selfishness hard to forgive. I understand that to some extent you have to look to your own needs, and I know that I'm far from blameless myself, but don't we all have some responsibility to each other? Aren't we all in this together?

In their own way, I find each of these little slights as painful as reading about the bigger issues in the newspaper. Why? Well, there's arguably not very much that you or I can do to directly influence events in Iraq, but each and every one of us can do something to make all of our lives a little bit more tolerable. What's the cliche? Think global, act local? Be the change you want to see in the world? Pay it forward? Or may Bill and Ted put it best: Be excellent unto each other.

Whatever. If we all stopped behaving like we were the centre of the world and started showing each other a little more basic consideration and respect.... then maybe, just maybe the world might become a nicer place.


  1. I think, though, that these annoyances help to make us very grateful for the little pleasures which help us through the days. Today, for example, a woman let me go ahead of her in the supermarket - I had a bottle of water, she had a year's worth of groceries for an entire tribe.

    That small gesture of kindness made me remember - sometimes people are actually nice.

  2. Ah, lane swimming etiquette... one of my favourite observational topics. Yeah, I normally try to act considerately to the less powerful swimmer, but if they seem determined to be permanently two feet ahead of me (quite literally) then I tend to switch direction a metre or so behind them just as they reach the end of the pool.

    The weirdest encounter I had recently was the woman who ignored the "Swim Clockwise" signs at each end of the pool and persisted in going the other way. Fair enough, I thought, give her the benefit of the doubt. She'll soon notice me swerving pointedly out of her way on each length. She'll work it out in her own time...


    "Actually," I replied, "you keep swimming in front of me." I pointed to the signs, trying to exhibit a kind of tactful respect.


    "Well, I think that actually you were blocking me. I didn't want to stop you in the middle of the lane and make a big scene..."


    Then she flounced off, leaving me utterly speechless. And continued to COMPLETELY FUCKING IGNORE the sign for another few lengths. The most annoying thing was that I ended up ranting about her to the other (stationery) person in the lane and probably came across to them as some kind of deranged control-freak lunatic.

  3. I can't believe I just wrote "stationery". Clearly I am deranged.

  4. I don't know about anyone else, but my mind wanders crazily in the pool because there's nothing much apart from the endless counting of lengths to occupy my mind. Sometimes single thoughts will get stuck in my head for what seems like an age, and sometimes I'll flit around like a butterfly. Other people in the pool are endlessly fascinating though: the things they choose to wear, the ways that they swim... especially people with a really wonky breaststroke kick or trying to do the butterfly. There are the people who swim with flippers on, or with those odd scoops on their hands. The ones who think they're boss and ostentatiously tumble-turn in front of you, the ones who seem to do nothing but chat, the ones who wear a swimming cap with their ears sticking out.... all sorts. And, if I'm being completely honest, if all the lanes are equally full and people are swimming at similar-ish speeds, I'll choose the lane with girls in rather than boys. Partly it's because they're generally less aggressive and more considerate, but let's face it, it's a lot to do with the fact that a lady of any shape or size is nicer to swim behind than some hairy-arsed bloke in a pair of speedos.

  5. And once again, you're speaking my mind for me. Stop that, it's very disconcerting.