Too Polite for Words: Missing Joan Rivers in Vancouver


I’ve elsewhere recounted in detail a very strange experience I had a couple of years ago when I was using my then-new iPad at my local branch of the Vancouver Public Library, with free WiFi, to catch an episode I’d missed of the TV show, Smash.  The short version is that I didn’t fully push the jack of my headset into its allotted slot so, although I thought I was listening to the hour-long show through the earbuds of my headset, I wasn’t.  The audio portion of the show–including the raucous musical numbers–was blaring through the section of the library in which I was sitting, loud enough so that I could hear it clearly even with what were effectively earplugs in my ears.  But none of the twenty or so people who, during that hour, were clearly positioned to hear the din and to discern its source said anything to me–not even the young, apparently tech-savvy, guy sitting across the library table from me using his portable computer, and not even the young woman, a part-time library employee, shelving books in that section of the library.  (The actual librarians were stationed around the corner, unable to see me and probably too far away to have heard much, if anything.) Both confirmed to me, when I was packing up to leave and discovered the jack was now completely detached from the iPad, that they had heard everything loud and clear.

Out of consideration for me, as much as out of consideration for themselves and for other patrons of the library, someone should have said something to me.  It was an embarrassing situation for me, not only because I was caught in a public place partaking of one of my private indulgences (although, as far private indulgences go, this was pretty tame) but also because I had been doing something really stupid, that goes against the basic principles of public library decorum.  I wouldn’t have minded at all if someone had tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out the problem, or even if someone had told me, bluntly, to shut the hell up.  Although most Vancouverites probably would regard the latter approach as extremely rude, and utterly unacceptable, I think of it more as outspokenness for the greater good. As I see it, it does far more damage to not tell someone something they need to be told than to provide them with the needed information, even in a somewhat harsh, to the point, manner. Thinking of the library incident in particular, a harsh, to the point, approach may actually have been best–followed, of course, by a good laugh by everyone concerned.

Although there are many things I like about my hometown of Vancouver, the excessive politeness of many of its citizens, that sometimes goes well beyond reasonableness, isn’t one of them. I’m not sure if what I have in mind should even be called ‘politeness’, since real politeness seems to require empathizing with others, and it’s empathy that seems to be lacking in these situations. Maybe what really bothers me is that most Vancouverites excel in the trappings of politeness, but a willingness to actually engage with others, or at least with those with whom one is not familiar, seems to be lacking. It’s a very strange, sometimes very disturbing, combination.  Since that library incident, and thinking about what had transpired, I’ve had many other strange experiences that seem to be related.

It’s quite likely that many, if not most, male Vancouverites never have experienced anything quite like my following example–at least on the receiving end of the situation–and, therefore, will find it hard to believe; but I think probably most female Vancouverites, especially those of a certain age (maybe 50 or older), have had many such experiences, although they may not interpret these experiences quite the way I do.  The example boils down to what may at first appear to be merely a widespread ineptitude among Vancouverites, particularly male Vancouverites, in opening doors for others.  You see, if you are a woman, and especially if you are a woman of a certain age, which I apparently have become in recent years, many ‘polite’ Vancouverites open doors for you as you are about to pass through—even if you are perfectly capable of opening those doors for yourself.  It’s a nice gesture–when it is done well.  But so often in this city, I’ve had the experience of someone opening a door for me ostensibly to make my passage easier yet actually blocking my passage, with their body or even with the door itself. It’s usually men who do this, although sometimes it’s also women, usually women younger than myself. It’s so very strange.

I don’t remember any such experiences from when I lived, for extended periods, in both Toronto and Montreal–although I was younger then, and fewer people were opening doors for me.  But even in my more recent travels outside of Vancouver, I’ve never experienced this phenomenon.  It seems to be just a Vancouver thing, to be experienced mainly, if not exclusively, by Vancouver females of a certain age–and, of course, by women of a certain age visiting our fair city, although, during a short stay they are likely to have such experiences only a couple of times at most, and to dismiss these experiences as bizarre anomalies. Take it from someone who lives here year-round, it’s not just an odd anomaly. Poor spacial perception, you say? I think not.  Or maybe just distractedness in a busy, bustling, city? There are other cities bigger and more bustling where this does not occur.  The high cost of housing in Vancouver resulting in Vancouverites not being able to afford proper eye care? That may be part of the problem, although only part of it.

The main problem seems to be a combination of Vancouverites in general excelling in the outward manifestations of politeness, including usually observing the nicety of opening a door for a woman of a certain age, yet not really connecting with the other person to be able to grasp the subtleties, such as that their ‘polite’ gesture of opening the door for someone else is actually blocking their way.

What is one to say in such a situation?  When this happens to me, I’m never really impolite. Although I may be fuming inside, I usually just tell the person in a resigned tone that they’re blocking my way, and ask them to move their body, or to adjust the position of the door, so I can get through.  That could be the Vancouverite in me. What such a situation, and others like them, may actually require is the harsh, to the point, approach, sometimes including even a rude word or two, so that people here will realize that their “kind gestures” sometimes aren’t actually polite at all, but consist merely of the trappings of politeness.

A post about this issue in my blog also may help to some extent; but, frankly, I think a few choice words, repeated at regular intervals over an extended period when such incidents occur would be far more effective.  In other words, we need more outspoken dames here–like the late Joan Rivers, who surely would have had something interesting to say in such ridiculous situations.


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