There is a story in the news about "the rudest woman in New Zealand". She is the owner of an award-winning pie shop in Springfield, Canterbury. Her husband, who co-owns the store, is reportedly also rude but the notion of "the rudest man in New Zealand" isn't interesting. Rude men are abundant; old news. One story about the cafe features a photo of the rudest woman. There she is, walking. Walking rudely. But the rudest man is relegated to the end of the article, where he is pictured hovering behind some bins.
I remember worrying as a kid that one day I would be given the names that the women around me were sometimes given. Maybe I would become "that awful woman" or "that bloody woman" or "that witch", defined by a particularly female awfulness, the way a vegetarian pie is defined as "not a real pie", unforgiveable. Rude women, especially rude women who work in the service industries, are seen as extra rude, since most women have been schooled all their lives to be polite, to always think of others; and good manners, as [etiquette guru] Emily Post said, are "a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others". Some tourists go to the Springfield pie shop specifically to be served by the rudest woman, her rudeness like a full-body tattoo or a beard of bees.
Manners seem as if they should be easy. Even Trump drips with manners when he's trying. Manners are a way for us to understand one another without really knowing one another. A way of minimising discomfort. A good-mannered exchange can start out fun and become weirdly challenging, like an arm wrestle with a toddler. Who will say "thank you" the most? Whose niceness seems the most genuine? Sometimes a person's manners become too dazzling, demanding too much and we retract our own manners and scuttle away.
I value politeness. But every so often a catastrophic rudeness flows through me like a geyser. And I wonder if the reason good manners are so valued is because a catastrophic rudeness flows through us all. It is terrifying to know how rude – how belligerent, selfish, disrespectful – we could really be. When I'm unhappy, I get rude. I get rude because I'm looking for a specific reason for feeling unhappy, and the usual free-floating discomfort doesn't seem sufficient. If I am rude, I can say to myself, "There it is. It's because you're an awful woman." I once laughed inappropriately at a poetry reading. Many times on my bike I have called someone a dickhead. (And even though I can give myself a pass for that, because in every case a dickhead had endangered my life or someone else's, I still say to myself, "There it is. You're awful.")
Whenever I am rude, I feel both powerful and helpless. Powerful because I have hulked out and because, as [US cartoonist] Bill Watterson said, "A little rudeness and disrespect can elevate a meaningless interaction to a battle of wills and add drama to an otherwise dull day." But helpless, because there is nowhere else to go once the excitement is over.
There's a sort of privilege in being able to correct yourself – even if, granted, that self-correction is tinged with an internalised sexism about how women should act – and to hurry back to politeness and have approval granted once more.
I keep thinking about the rudest woman in New Zealand. She sounds unreal, like a giant made of gold, or like the talking mongoose on the Isle of Man in the 1930s. She makes me think of that project The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, where amid anonymous landscapes you see something you'd never expect, like a reindeer galloping along a highway or a lone policeman cheering.
Rudeness runs through us all. I think of an older relative who, when a shop assistant wished him a nice day, would say darkly, "I have other plans." I think of my dad closing the door on a pair of Jehovah's Witnesses, bellowing, "NO!" I think of a male teacher throwing a chair at the wall. These were funny stories. Men being proud eccentrics. But the stories would be less funny if it were a woman. They would be less funny still if it were a black or brown person, or a trans person, or someone neurodivergent. The less power a person has, the more harshly they're judged if their manners aren't right.
I don't believe the rudest woman in New Zealand exists. Even if she did, I don't think she would even have a human form. Maybe she'd be one of those robot dogs that keeps getting up when you push it over. Maybe she'd be a drone, or an SUV towing a speedboat. Maybe she'd keep shapeshifting, depending on who was looking.