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Op-Ed

Rude awakening

Los Angeles is a strangeropolis. But it doesn't have to stay that way.

February 08, 2011|By Amy Alkon

Snapshot from Los Angeles, the place Travel + Leisure readers deemed the rudest city in America: It's late morning in an L.A. coffeehouse. Everybody's staring down into something — a laptop, spreadsheets, a college entrance exam workbook — until the door opens and an elderly woman carrying a canvas book bag walks in. Writers stop writing, students stop studying and wave, smile and call hello to the woman, who smiles brightly and waves back. A few get up, one by one, and go give her a hug.

The woman is Kay, and her husband, who comes in 20 minutes later, steadied by a walker, is Earl. Another round of hugging ensues. I can't trace back exactly how this hugging tradition started, but somebody hugged Kay, and somebody else saw it happen, and now it's just how things are. When Kay and Earl come in, people get up and go hug them.

The people who decided L.A. was America's rudest city probably aren't going to get to this coffeehouse and see how some of us make Los Angeles an incredibly warm and neighborly place. Sure, L.A. is big and spread out, and it's easy to feel alienated here — if you let yourself be alienated. To a great extent, you inhabit the world you create wherever you are.

To understand why L.A. can be a tough city to feel at home in, it helps to understand why people are rude. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar figured out that the human neocortex seems to have a capacity to manage social interaction in societies of about 150 people. Beyond that number, social order seems to break down.

In other words, people are rude — in L.A. and many other places — because we live in societies too big for our brains. In a small society in which everyone knows each other, you can't act out the way you can around strangers. If, however, you're around people you'll never see again, you can get away with all sorts of nasty behavior.

We can't shrink Los Angeles to a more polite population size, but we can bring back some of the constraints and benefits of the small tribal societies our brains are adapted for. This actually doesn't take much.

We need to refuse to be victimized by the rude. This means speaking out when people are behaving hoggishly, like all those cellphone shouters privatizing public space as their own. We also need to make an effort to treat strangers like neighbors — to smile at the guy passing us on the sidewalk, to say hello to the cashier, to do the small kindnesses that you would for someone you know.

It helps to be mindful that L.A. is not just the second-biggest strangeropolis in the country but a place of neighborhoods: geographical neighborhoods and neighborhoods people create in their lives; neighborhoods defined by shared interests.

My first friend in L.A. was the late Cathy Seipp, whom I met after I sent her a fan letter about her New York Press column, "Letter from L.A." We started putting together monthly "writergirl" breakfasts at the Farmers Market. Next, we threw a small party at my house for an author I knew. Before long, Cathy and I, with French journalist Emmanuelle Richard, were bringing together hundreds of people, mainly journalists and authors, at monthly book parties we threw at bars and restaurants around L.A. In just a few years in Los Angeles, I not only found close friends but helped create a vibrant community of writers and thinkers.

In the community in L.A. where I live, I try to remember that you make a place neighborly by acting neighborly: Remind your neighbor when she's forgotten to move her car on street-cleaning day. Pull in somebody's recycling bin when they've been working long hours. Sweep in front of your neighbor's driveway when you sweep yours.

It's also important to expand your concept of "neighbor" to anyone in your vicinity that you can act neighborly to. Not long ago, I saw a car stopped on my street in a place cars don't normally stop. "Everything OK?" I called to the 70ish man at the wheel.

In an Irish accent, he said, "Actually, we're lost." He and his wife were looking for the freeway, which was several miles and several turns behind them. I was running late for an appointment, but I gave them quick directions. The man thanked me, but he looked confused.

"One sec!" I said. I ran to my car, pulled out a pen and paper and wrote the directions down. It was no big deal, but then again, it was.

A minute or two of generosity of spirit is probably all it takes to leave people with a lasting good impression of Los Angeles, and more important, it just might compel them to pass on a little goodwill to the people they encounter — to spread the nice instead of the mean.

Amy Alkon's latest book is "I See Rude People: One woman's battle to beat some manners into impolite society."

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