Know the difference


in Ideas • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


In the past few months, I’ve realized that Americans apply the word “rude” quite differently than the rest of the universe, using the term to describe what, in my world, amounts to being genuine and forthright. 

So just in case I had misunderstood the word when I was learning this wonderful language, I checked whether it still meant what I thought it did.   

According to the Oxford Modern Dictionary, rude means: 

“Impolite” — my translation — not saying “thank you,” when shown kindness, not holding a door open for the person behind you; not responding to emails in a timely fashion; looking at your cell phone while someone is talking to you, eating the last cookie without asking if anyone else would like it. Yes, even if it’s your favorite, chocolate chip. 

“Offensive” — my translation — using foul language in public; not using deodorant; smoking pot where others can’t avoid smelling you; sagging pants when belts are readily available, letting your dog bark for hours when you’re not home (or when you are home and don’t give a damn), not wearing a mask in an establishment that asks that you do so. Trump.    

“Primitive or unsophisticated” — my translation — eating with your mouth open, admiring the Kardashians; watching The Bachelorette, lack of awareness about world affairs. Trump.  

 “Indecent, lewd” — my translation — wearing bras for shirts, telling obscene jokes at dinner parties, talking about your sex life with people whose business it’s not.  

Trust me; I know rude. Despite being raised by polite European parents, the raising took place mostly in the Middle East, where every conversation sounds like an argument, where drivers park on sidewalks and waiters smoke as they serve your coffee, cigarette ash hovering precariously over your brew. It’s where I learned that I needed sharp elbows and an even sharper tongue if I wanted to survive. Though shy and well-bred I could push my way through a jostling crowd onto a bus then give up my seat for an elderly passenger. In school, I respectfully stood when teachers entered classrooms, yet I could stare down a line-jumper at the post office when he stepped in front of me, claiming he’d been there earlier. If you want a demonstration in rudeness, watch me in an Israeli airport attempting to leave using my American passport. I know the difference between being cheeky and standing my ground even without the litmus test that was my husband’s bewildered expression when he witnessed me tackle Israeli bureaucracy. Yet Israel is also where I learned that integrity and accountability matter, that speaking up is the only way to cause change, even when those around you don’t like what you have to say. It’s where I learned to prefer genuine to superficial, even if it means being exposed to difficult truths.  

I’ll be the first to admit when I’ve been rude. I told the scammer on the phone the other day to bugger himself, and I yelled particularly colorful language out my car window in the general direction of the gas station when the price climbed another 10 cents.  

But I’m not talking about the rudeness of the occasional profanity, misplaced admiration, or public transportation etiquette. I’m referring to a society so conditioned to accept platitudes used to protect from brushing up against reality that it calls rude that which makes us uncomfortable. It’s the go-to accusation when you’ve dared question someone else’s behavior or aptitude. We can no longer criticize students’ work without offending their inflated sense of themselves. A student of mine claimed I was rude when she didn’t receive the grade she thought she deserved, then added, didn’t I know that students “had other things going on in their lives?” I was rude because I hadn’t showered her inadequacy with praise and instead, expected her to be accountable for her poor performance. On social media, you’re rude if you don’t give “trigger warnings” before you make a comment that could upset individuals living in bubbles. I was accused of being “fat-biased” when I questioned the validity of altering Roald Dahl’s description of Augustus Gloop from “fat” to “enormous.” I fail to see the distinction. When did broaching a subject that might make others think or alter their ways become impolite? Why does everything have to be sunshine and lollipops? When did this become the age of the euphemism? 

We trade polite if disingenuous greetings at stores where we’re asked questions to which no one expects honest answers, scripted exchanges whose alternative may just make us more human. We smile — otherwise, we’re not being “nice,” we say “See you later” when we’ve no such intention. We agree with others despite knowing better because being Yes Men is safe. “I don’t respond well to suggestions . . . that our faculty have low standards,” said a colleague. Well, I should hope not. I said it because it’s true and students are graduating without basic writing skills. Don’t respond well because it’s a serious problem, not because I dared bring it up.   

We’re taught that honesty is the best policy but then we’re punished when we break the social code and say what we think, even when it’s true. I was taught to be polite so I’m fully capable of saying I’m fine when the clerk at the store asks how I’m doing but doesn’t really care that I cried in the bread aisle when I saw the pita I now have to buy because the man who made it for me is dead. Excuse me, passed away. “Okay,” I responded when the bank teller asked how my day had been, since I doubt she wanted to hear what tremendous willpower it took to proceed with life’s tasks when I no longer saw purpose in them. When the shop girl asked if there was anything wrong with the shirt I returned two days after I’d bought it, I simply said that it didn’t fit. I couldn’t explain that it was the first pretty thing I’d bought myself since becoming a widow and I felt too guilty to keep it. Seinfeld tried to return a jacket for spite and it didn’t work. I doubt the salesgirl would have understood returning an item for grief.   

A woman I thought had been my friend for 20 years didn’t check in on me after my Mark died, then months later, grinning, her arms spread wide asked, “How’s life?” right there in the grocery store where she ran into me. I let the polite American I’ve learned to play stand in shocked silence for all of 30 seconds fighting back tears, before the Israeli clawed her way up my throat and told her she’d been a terrible friend.  

I can do “polite” when the issue isn’t that important, when what really matters isn’t affected. But don’t ask me to lower my standards, accept the unacceptable; accommodate mediocrity and inefficiencies to spare feelings; and do it all with a smile. When the scheduler messed up my son’s infusion time, she thought that repeating “I apologize” would make me go away. Apparently, I was the rude one in telling her the apology was empty since she had no intention of correcting the error, one we could not risk making. “I’m hanging up,” she said, without fixing the problem. I’m sure she thought she was being polite for giving me the heads-up. 

Perhaps I’m naïve for believing that I can change the world by speaking up; perhaps I’m surrounded by too many Yes Men for whom not rocking the boat and being liked is more important than living genuinely. Yet is a sanitized world the kind in which we want to live? Where publishers hire sensitivity writers to rewrite children’s books, and overly triggered individuals censor life to avoid being pained by a reality which rarely comes in Disney versions? A world in which being rightfully angry is met with useless responses such as the dismissive, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or the infuriating, “You take it easy,” and the more refined Southern version, “Bless your heart,” which I only recently learned is a thinly veiled expression of condescension and contempt.  

Speak your truth. Even though doing so makes others uncomfortable. Even though those hearing it are unlikely to agree with you, since agreeing suggests a need for change which is both frightening and requires hard work. Sometimes those who do appreciate what you have to say are afraid to openly admit it. Like the colleague who walked up to me in a university corridor after I had voiced concerns during a heated department meeting; heated because I’d upset the delicate balance of that boat no one dared rock for fear of getting wet. I had stood up in that metaphorical vessel and done a jig. How rude . . . most of their expressions suggested, eyes accused, silently of course. Anything else would be uncivilized. The colleague had waited until we were out of earshot, back in dry dock. She grabbed my hand and whispered, “You’re such a bad ass!” admiration shining in her eyes. I was baffled. And so, I asked, “If you agreed with me, why didn’t you speak up?” Her confusion matched mine before she explained, “I’m not that brave.” 

When did calling it like it is become an act of heroism? I hadn’t run into a burning building to save another living creature. I hadn’t faced and conquered a fear — heights, spiders, flying. I spoke up during a meeting of about 30 English department faculty members, where nothing was being accomplished other than perpetuating the complacency that hadn’t been working all along.  

The colleague had it backwards if she thought that speaking up took an act of bravery which may invite harm. What she didn’t realize is that not doing so, avoiding the risk of being deemed rude, is what can ultimately hurt you. Those students whose grades you inflate because you want to be liked, because you don’t want poor evaluations, because you’re worried about keeping your job — how good will they be at theirs? Will they strive for excellence in their own fields if you commend them for mediocrity? Will that bridge you drive over collapse because the engineer forgot to tighten a screw? Will the house crumble when the earthquake hits? Will couching truths in sugary coatings to prevent stepping on toes mean the war rages on while you’re maintaining diplomacy? 

Not speaking up might just cost someone their life. It’s a thought that has plagued me for the last 38 months. After it was too late, after the emergency room nurse stopped trying to resuscitate, after the electrocardiogram fell silent, and the spikes on the screen flatlined and took away with them the one being on the planet I thought understood me. Of all the times in my life, why didn’t I speak up when the paramedics took too long by the side of the road as I heard the only man whose opinion mattered to me struggle for air? Why didn’t I scream at the ambulance driver when she asked, “Can I turn here?” once we finally got underway? Or at the emergency room doctor who said that they didn’t have the right equipment when I pleaded that they save him? Why didn’t I grab the physician by the lapels and demand excellence? Instead, I stood clutching one of my Mark’s black socks, holding his right foot between pulses of electricity and demands to “Clear!” Why had I chosen that moment to shove the abrasive Israeli back into her cage and assume the polite American version of myself when it was literally a question of life and death. 

Perhaps because minutes before he bent over and grabbed his knees, before he stretched himself out on the sidewalk not five minutes from our home, my husband turned to me and asked, “Why do you have to be so negative?” During the very last exchange I would ever have with him, there it was. The non-confrontational American man I loved beyond words, not understanding the outspoken Israeli I just couldn’t hide.  

It isn’t rude to instill excellence, to question inadequacy, to demand respect, to be human. But it does invite difficult truths and it can be unbelievably costly.   

Now I’ve got the rest of my life alone to think about it.•


Karen Levy is an Israeli-American writer and author of My Father's Gardens, (Homebound Publications 2013, Pushcart Prize nominee 2014), among other publications. Despite living in this country for an exceedingly long time, she still finds it challenging to navigate between the Israeli she once was and the American she has become.