Something happened when I was in India recently that made me reconsider how I act in the world. I’d been queuing up for a long time at the door of a concert and once inside, secured a good place upfront.
We had to sit on pillows on the floor, with legs crossed. My left knee was sticking out slightly into the aisle. Because we were jammed in like sardines, it wasn’t possible for anyone to move along so I just kept moving my knee up when people passed.
About five minutes before the concert began, a man came up and told me I had to move because I was blocking the aisle. I did what I always do when confronted: I gave him an earful. “But I … it’s not fair because … I was … I wasn’t …”
He stood listening quietly, then he did something extraordinary. He put his hands to his chest and bowed to me, and said with great humility: “I’m so sorry to do this to you, Madame, but this is my job. Please would you move for me?” — all the while bowing his head to his hands. I was so shocked to be shown that much deference, I found my mouth saying: “Yes, of course” as my body rose itself up from the floor and relocated to the back.
It’s so rare, almost nonexistent, to be shown such respect in the world we live in. Rudeness, pushiness, impatience rule. To the extent that we begin many interactions on the defensive, hyper-vigilant that something unfair is about to happen or steeped in our own power play. My modus operandi is a fighting fish or, as my mother says, “an argument waiting to happen”.
We all have our own survival tactics; some of us feel we’ll be hurt so we criticise others first; some fear being taken advantage of and remain cynical and aloof. “Prepare for Battle!” or “Brace Yourself!” are common unconscious catchcries many of us adopt as we get into our cars in the morning and fight our way through another day of office politics and relationship challenges. Politeness is often just a façade.
Because our beliefs dictate our behaviour and hence outcomes, if we are defensive or aggressive we attract the same in return. This man’s respect commanded my respect. I’m not easily dislodged to a back seat.
He made me feel like I was being honoured as a person. Was it a cultural difference, perhaps, or just his innate kindness? All I knew was that it worked liked nothing ever has.
To bow would be bizarre in our culture, but I understood the value of the metaphorical bow. Contrary to how it might have appeared, showing deference to others has great power in it.
ruthostrow.com Twitter @OstrowRuth
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