Book review: Amy Alkon's I See Rude People

It’s not often that I actually get to finish a book these days.  Most of my day involves keeping up with blogs, newspapers, wire services, and e-mails. and I find that I want a diversion from politics in my down time rather than more immersion in politics.  When I received an advance copy of Amy Alkon’s I See Rude People, it seemed like a fun diversion — and it’s definitely fun, but most definitely has something serious to say about modern living and the price people have to pay to ensure that the world does not treat them like doormats.

Most readers will relate to the various situations Alkon takes from her own life: a stolen car, telemarketers, being surrounded by “underparented children,” and so on.  Perhaps many of them would not personally take the steps Alkon did in challenging others to be more considerate — or in the case of her stolen pink Rambler, become Nancy Drew.  After all, Alkon herself notes that the role of “costly punisher” carries significant risks in social standing, time, and money — but if more people took on that role, the cost of insisting on societal norms would decrease for everyone.

Think of it in terms of the “broken window” philosophy of Rudy Giuliani and Howard Safir in New York City.  Ignoring the petty insults to society encourages larger breakdowns, whereas enforcement of the ground-level norms discourages them.  Alkon hails the French example in her book by noting that French parents insist on proper manners for their children — and are not at all shy about correcting the children of others in public when they transgress etiquette norms.

Alkon layers her book with equal helpings of sociology and personal experiences, but of course it’s the latter that make I See Rude People a page-turner.  She spares no one and few details.  She rips into Bank of America, and in the process exposes some business practices that might have its customers thinking seriously about changing banks.  Alkon balances this by showing how Whole Foods understood the need to treat its customers as though they cared about them, and how they needed only a little prodding to come to that realization.  Alkon also covers her interactions with loud cell-phone conversationalists in public areas who seem clueless about disseminating personal information at the top of their lungs — and how a technological relic of the old Bell system could solve the problem.  And while Elmore Leonard calls the pink Rambler story worth the price of the book alone, Alkon’s story about how some “progressive” bloggers started a rumor that she was a pre-op transsexual will hit closer to home for conservative bloggers.  (No, she’s not, for the record.)

The book just hit the stores this weekend.  It’s a fun, quick, entertaining read, sure to make your blood boil — but also sure to provide more than just moments to which we can all relate.  Alkon gives us a path to follow to demand that people treat us as they should.

Update: Amy wrote a column for the LA Times this week that relates to one of her major points in the book, underparented children, although the episode isn’t included in the book. It was meant to support her argument that inconsiderate people steal time and peace of mind from those around them. Read her blog to see the reaction to that article, and how remaining polite changed the course of a conversation.

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