The mathematics of rudeness

I was hungover yesterday.

After a few too many drinks at a party I’d imagined I would leave at 1 but ended up Ubering home from at 4, I was teetering between anxiety attack and mild hallucinations from the moment that I woke up.

If I could have, I would have spent the day laying in bed, watching Gilmore Girls and eating pretzels, eventually ordering Indian takeaway and falling asleep in a C-shape, with the remnants of my meal placed on the floor beside my bed.

I couldn’t do this, though, because I had an improv class in Central London to attend, which is a class that I cherish (and pay for). So, I forced myself out of bed, into Pret for a coffee and onto the Northern line, where I would ride until Leicester Square station.

It was a Saturday and so, naturally, the Northern line was a healthy level of busy. And while there were no seats available (and none to become available), there was a single, unused pole available for my use. I claimed my space promptly on entering the tubecar, hugging the pole with my arms and leaning my tired head against it. I shut my eyes.

As the ride went on, I began to get nervous. I started practicing lines in my mind for the (let’s face it, very unlikely) scenario where someone publicly denounced me for using the entire pole to lean against when others could be in need of something to grab onto.

If you don’t live in London or another big city, this sort of worry might sound insane. But it’s not that crazy. I’ve heard my friends and colleagues talk about this a lot.

I hate it when rude people get on the tube and take an entire pole to lean on. Don’t they know that other people need to use it?

So, I imagined what’d I’d say.

I don’t normally do this, it’s just that I’m hungover.

It’s just that I’m hungover. It’s just that I’m hungover. I repeated the words again and again. No one will ask, I thought. But if they do, I’m hungover.

I really did need the pole. The tube is already a stressful place, made no easier by the self-inflicted trauma of a hangover. And I’m susceptible to getting panic attacks and worried that I might fall apart without the particular comfort of leaning.

It didn’t matter though, because to everyone on the tube, I was the rude person they would reference when they talked to their friends about hating people who take up an entire pole just for themselves on the tube.

People talk a lot about people. People who walk really unpredictably because they’re looking at something on their phone. People who get angry and yell at you when you’re biking on the pavement. People who don’t let other passengers off before getting on a train. People who take an entire pole for themselves on the tube.

In such close quarters, we have a lot of reasons to get frustrated by people because we have to experience people so often. It’s easy to blame specific people for being rude when their actions are affecting us, so we do. And it’s never me or you — it’s that guy in the market. It’s that lady in the restaurant.

But what’s really going on here?

London is a city of 8.14 million people. If everyone did something rude once a week, we’d have 1.16 million rude incidents a day. And since at least one person needs to be present for an act to be considered rude¹, we Londoners would have, at the very least, a 16.6 percent chance² of seeing one rude act daily.

That chance indicates that you would see someone doing something rude one in every six days. I don’t know about you, but for me that sounds about right.

So is anyone rude? Or is it that once a week, in a moment of weakness or distraction, we drop the ball and, since we live in a city where none of our actions are hidden, people see it?

I can say with confidence that I have been the rude person walking too slowly because I’m trying to pull up a map on my phone. I’ve also been the rude person who didn’t stop for pedestrians at a zebra crossing because I was daydreaming about what I was going to get for lunch.

I’m rude like a shooting star is bright. I do something, say oops, and then go back to me, the person who thinks before they do something.

And we’re all that way. The man who yelled at the Qantas check-in desk clerk isn’t normally this grumpy. It’s just that his car broke down on the way to Heathrow and so he’s late to check-in for his flight to Sydney to see his daughter and he’s afraid of flying in the first place.

The foreigners who had two drinks in Soho and then talked ten decibels louder than is acceptable on the tube aren’t used to being in public in the first place. In fact, they’ve never taken public transportation and are nervous that they’ll miss their stop.

The teenager who dropped their candy wrapper on the street floor and didn’t pick it up didn’t notice the wrapper in the first place. They just ran into their crush on the street and were looking down at their jumper, worried that they said the wrong thing.

We’re all rude sometimes, but no one is rude all the time. People aren’t rude, they’re just not made well enough to always function the way that they would like to. People need a break sometimes and sometimes they don’t get it, so they lean on a tube pole. They walk out onto the street without looking. They forget to clean up after themselves at a cafe.

I’m not saying that we should be O.K. with rudeness, but I do think that we need to change the way that we see rudeness. Rudeness is not a common act performed by a defined group of sinister people. It’s just a thing that happens sometimes, done by people who probably realised later that they were being rude. Done by people like your mom and your boyfriend. Done by you.

The next time that you see someone doing something rude, take a moment to think about all of the reasons why they might be doing that rude thing. Is their son not doing well in school? Did they just get a bad haircut? Are they thirsty? Nothing justifies rudeness and everything justifies rudeness. And when rudeness is seen as a fleeting moment and not a character trait, everyone suddenly appears nicer.

  1. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

2. The math:

16 Rude Acts/(8.14 Londoners — 1.16 Rude Londoners) =

0.166/1.000 =


Writer, t-shirt designer, software engineer. Child. Canoe.

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