Just when everything looked black, the emergency etiquette system kicked in. Miss Manners never ceases to be amazed at its power.
Campfire stories of the massive electric failure last month sparkled with illuminating examples. Consideration and camaraderie were being shown by people who would certainly not be chummy if they had anything better to do.
Those whose normal means of perambulation is to elbow one another off the sidewalk were stopping to lend a hand instead. Drivers who might have been running down pedestrians were offering them lifts. Neighbors whose only previous form of communication had been the complaint sat around chatting in the dark.
Some of the businesspeople who could have profited from the situation chose not to. There were more than a few vendors who lowered prices they might have raised and opportunists who decided not to go looting.
Miss Manners has noticed such outbursts of courtesy under stress occurring under many tragic circumstances. For the New Yorkers who were hit by the power outage, it was a small reprise of the spirit shown following the Sept. 11, 2001, attack; elsewhere, many found it reminiscent of the atmosphere during floods, tornadoes or other natural disasters.
As Miss Manners understands it, the formula is: The worse conditions get, the better people behave. Good times, bad behavior; bad times, good behavior.
This ensures that we always have troubles, if not from without, then from within.
After the 2001 tragedy, people were saying that life had changed forever, and now they were going to count their blessings and concentrate on what was important and never again grumble and fret over petty daily grievances.
"This is a wakeup call," is what people always declare each time things go wrong. That is when they promise to beef up security, lay in supplies, crack down on crime, fix the equipment or whatever else might offer retroactive reassurance.
Then comes the all-clear sign, signaling that the immediate threat is past and everyone can go back to being careless and snippy. It's impressive how resilient we are when it comes to reconstructing our shattered sense that life is irritatingly bad but not dangerous.
Miss Manners finds this understandable. How do you ordinarily react to a wakeup call, even one that you set yourself the night before? Don't you roll over and try to get back to sleep, trusting that the annoyance will go away if you ignore it?
However, the etiquette alert is different. The standard of behavior we exhibit during emergencies is not scary; on the contrary. It is a demonstration of how pleasant life can be when people treat one another courteously.
Furthermore, it is easily attainable. We may not be able to prevent natural disasters or eradicate crime, but we can create an amiable living environment by behaving ourselves. One might be forgiven for thinking "No, we can't" after observing people in their undisturbed habitat, but the examples when things go wrong prove otherwise. They also give the lie to the usual modern excuse of rudeness being the inevitable result of stress.
We needn't maintain the full heroic stance. Just the resolve to refrain from being annoying and aggressive would help. No need to go around handing strangers free bottles of water.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: Like many office buildings, the one in which I work uses an access-card entry system. I keep my card in my wallet. Often, instead of taking out the wallet to run it by the sensor, I merely swivel my hip slightly to allow the card to be "read."
Is this hop move considered rude if (1) no one is in the vicinity? (2) I believe no one is seeing this? and (3) I'm only with close colleagues?
GENTLE READER: Rude? Actually, it sounds exciting. Miss Manners lives in a city with hardly a building standing that doesn't require an access pass or at least a show of identification, and none of them features a folk dance. Would you care to come to Washington, D.C., and teach it to us?