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The Kindness of Strangers

The saga of Ned LeBow and his unfortunate interaction with Professor Simona Sharoni put me in mind of the contrasting agreeableness of good-hearted strangers sharing an amusing moment.

About a decade ago I was in Charleston, South Carolina for a trade show. I entered a hotel elevator with my wife, and on the following floor a young couple joined us. Several floors later, before we had reached the lobby level, the elevator door opened, and the young woman stepped forward. Her husband gently touched her arm, and said, “We’re not there yet.” She laughed, stepped back, and replied, “I always think it’s my floor.”

With studied tentativeness, I stage-whispered to her (and him), “You know, it’s not always about you.”

The husband looked over at me with a big smile and observed, “Uh, actually it is.”

All four of us laughed happily.

A few floors later we reached the ground floor and went out again into the world.

What a lovely, shared interlude between people who had never seen each other before and would never do so again. My spoken line was a bit of a trope, like Ned LeBow’s. Nothing serious. Nothing aggressive. Just an effort at a bit of fun that succeeded wonderfully.

How nice it is to live in a world where certain strangers always look on the bright side of life. Precisely the opposite of the pinched, bitter attitude that seemed to animate Merrimack University Professor Simona Sharoni at the ISA conference.

As I noted the other day, Simona Sharoni has a PhD in conflict resolution. In her interaction with Ned LeBow, was she thinking to resolve a potential conflict?

Or was she too slow-witted to respond to LeBow’s “ladies lingerie” witticism with a rival comment of her own? What if she had said in reply, “Next floor, men’s bikini briefs.” I expect that the occupants of the elevator would all have laughed out loud, too.

But no. Professor Sharoni seems animated by a different set of values and attitudes. She behaved as if she were a person who sees grievances and slights wherever she can find them. Perhaps she’s had a hard life as a tenured professor at a Massachusetts university.

Whatever her background, Sharoni missed an opportunity to help a group of strangers share a moment of common humanity. Everyone could have enjoyed a joke and then gone their separate ways, rather than beginning an ugly conflict. I guess that certain people are burdened by the weight of past oppressions at all times.

My own experience in life is that folks in New England seem to carry with them such an attitude more often than elsewhere in the United States. In fact, when I read about the Lebow vignette, I immediately looked to see the background of the complainant. I was not wrong. In other parts of the country, particularly in the South, there’s a greater sense of camaraderie, one that often carries across age and race and gender.

When the rhetorical question is royally asked, ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’, the answer is that some people really have no interest in getting along. At all. What a shame.

Addendum: As another old joke goes:

A man turns to two female college professors and says “Did you hear the joke about the two feminists.”

And they answer simultaneously, “That’s not funny!!!”

Addendum: Jokes making light of men and women abound in the culture. We can laugh at them — and at ourselves — or choose not to do so. Would you have laughed at Paul Lynde on the Hollywood Squares?:

The wink here is that Lynde’s feigned misogyny is part of his scarcely concealed homosexuality — a theme pursued by entertainers like Liberace in the 1970’s, too.

Addendum: My sister once joked:

Q: What’s the difference between a man and a sexual aid?

A: A man can also mow the lawn.

As you can imagine, I was in tears for hours thereafter.

Addendum: An alumnus writes in:

BRAVO! What a great way to start a lovely spring day. It sure is a breath of fresh air to hear that common sense can overcome personal insecurity on the part of those who see themselves as victims or entitled to respect when it is not earned. A good laugh at ourselves can go a long way to making life worth living. The age old expression ‘Get a Life’ takes on new meaning thanks to your insight.

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