Do two rudes make a polite? Amy Alkon thinks so. Best known as the eponymous deity in the syndicated column "Ask the Advice Goddess," Alkon is more of an avenging angel these days for ordinary citizens victimized by bad manners. Cell-phone abusers, telemarketers, out-of-control feral children, cyber bullies and other social thugs beware: Alkon is coming for you.
"The people I go after are the ones who willfully take whatever is there," she says as she attempts to relax at her favorite café. Cafés and grocery stores and parking lots have become battlegrounds. Skirmishes are fought here between inconsiderate cell-phone users and their hapless, unintentional audience.
"For example, there was this guy at Ralphs the other day," Alkon says. "He's standing there ignoring the poor cashier woman, talking in his cell phone. So rude! She's not an adding machine with realistic human features. She's a person. She's been there all day. It's Sunday night. She'd probably rather be home with her kids, but she has to earn a living to feed them. I happen to know that particular lady has children, because I talk to people. You know: 'Hi, I'm Amy. How are you?' Not everybody's that kind of chatty person. My boyfriend's very introverted. When I see someone who doesn't want to be bothered, I try to restrain myself. I have ADD, which means it's like in my mind there are 12 squirrels running in different directions at all times. It's horrible. Um ... what was I saying?"
"Oh, yes. I hate it when people are glued to their phones when they're with someone else. Unless you're getting a new liver, what is so important? It's hurtful. The person you're with feels this big." Alkon squeezes her fingers together. "It's not nice." She would have told the guy off, but he was out of earshot.
As you might have guessed, Alkon has a tornado of a personality. She's one-woman surround sound.
Society, she'll tell you, has become too big for our brains. Humans originally lived in small tribes. You had to behave nicely back then, because otherwise, you would literally be voted off the island.
"In a big city, if you're driving and flip someone the bird, you never see them again. But in a small town, that person is your neighbor, and tomorrow there's going to be dog poo on your stoop," Alkon explains. "People are going to call your mother."
The way to bring back the constraints of the small town, she believes, is to use technology to shame people into behaving better. She records and reports their transgressions on her Web site, advicegoddess.com, for the world to see.
When people listen to their voice mail on speakerphone in public places, Alkon whips out her little recorder and tapes it. When an especially loud woman yammered on her phone at a café, engaging in terrible "nobody matters but me" behavior, Alkon wrote down everything the woman said, including her phone number. "If you are shouting in a public place, giving out your information, I'm going to assume you are lonely and I am going to help you," Alkon says. "I put her conversation and her phone number on my blog. She got calls from around the world."
Several 20-somethings were being noisy in Alkon's Santa Monica neighborhood late one night. They'd stumbled out of a nearby bar. "Do you notice all these houses here?" she said. "Do you hear my dog started barking, my neighbor's baby started crying?"
"No," they said.
"Clearly you were badly raised," she said.
"Are you saying that because we're Asian?" they countered.
No, she told them. It's because "you're loud, inconsiderate assholes."
She took a photo of the revelers and put it on her site.
She pulls out her laptop and scrolls to the picture. "See? Look how not sorry they are."
Other times, it's not technology that is required but old-fashioned discipline. Alkon will reprimand misbehaving "feral stage" children, to the consternation of their parents. "Yes, I was parenting your child," she'll say. "Why weren't you?"
Alkon's foulest circle of hell is reserved for telemarketers. She sues them and wins. She calls them at home and chews them out for being rude: "Don! You called me at home. During dinner. That's not nice." Afterward, she bills them for her time — adding invoice to insult and injury. She fights outrage with more outrage, a technique that channels a lot of anger on both sides of the rudeness equation. Unsurprisingly, the flame wars on her blog frequently go thermonuclear.
In the process of righting social wrongs, Alkon has been called bitter; obnoxious; ugly; psycho; Revengerella; a militant Miss Manners; a tranny; a genius; a crazy redhead (by her closest friends); a force of nature (by most everyone who has met her).
Oh, and "costly punisher" (by herself).
"Costly punishers are people who see an injustice, feel it very deeply and then take action at cost to themselves and at no possible benefit," she says. "Which is another way of saying I'm an idiot."
She has been cursed at, yelled at, and was almost punched in the nose. Bristling from her late-night scolding, a group of rowdy, obnoxious guys got out of their car, chased her and tried to break down her gate.
Alkon brandished her pepper spray and called the cops, who scolded her right back: "You don't argue with drunks at two in the morning, lady."
"I know," she said sheepishly.
She took a picture of the would-be attackers as well. "You want to see it? These people need to be shamed."
Mostly, when people are rude, Alkon politely asks them not to be. She does not instantly hop on her broom. She can empathize. She does not have perfect manners. She has those dozen squirrels in her brain. She had no friends as a child. "I wanted to be liked for so long, so badly. Then in my 20s I kind of got over that.
"Then I became a disagreeable witch," she says, laughing in her exuberant, openhearted way. "But only when it's called for."
Rudeness is a kind of mindlessness and un–self-awareness as much as it is selfishness. The root of manners, Alkon believes, is empathy.
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Occasionally, the tables turn. A woman at Venice's Rose Café recently came over to Alkon and said, "You know, you're very loud. That's rude."
"Your first impulse is to go, 'Screw you, lady,' " Alkon admits. "But I really do try to be better. Recognizing you're a jerk is the first step. So, I took a breath and said, 'You're right. I'm sorry.' " They became friends because of that.
A conversation with a telemarketer led her to understand that the guy was a disabled 65-year-old man just trying to make a living. Clearly, bad manners are complicated. So complicated, she felt compelled to write a book on the subject. It's titled I See Rude People: One Woman's Battle to Beat Some Manners Into Impolite Society.
It is selling well. “Which is a relief,” Alkon says. “Because it would be rude to not earn back my advance.”