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On Character Formation and Tolerating Non-Euphoria

Walmart Corporate / Flickr.com
Walmart Corporate / Flickr.com

Rod Dreher speaks up for the indispensability of morally formative good manners, as against Peter Frase’s defense of the “sincere rudeness” of Soviet-era food servers.

Rod writes:

That’s a false choice, one that assumes waitstaff wants to treat people in a surly, resentful way, and are only prevented from doing so by company rules. Perhaps that is true in some cultures, where people are trained to be asshats by default. There is a third option: a culture where people are basically happy and well-mannered. This is the culture I grew up in. I worked as a clerk in a grocery store as a teenager, and I actually liked my job very much. It was hard work at times, but I enjoyed helping people. And why not?

I agree with Rod, but from a slightly different angle. I, too, worked in a grocery store as a teenager, first as a bagboy, then cashier; and subsequently at a handful of other grunt jobs throughout high school and college. I’ll be straight up with you: Unlike Rod, I did not enjoy this kind of work a bit. I did not like cleaning urinals and emptying trash cans; assembling cubicle partitions; moving office furniture; or scanning groceries on Christmas Eve. The one job I halfway liked—at a hotel and golf resort near the Jersey Shore—afforded me my first exposure to the professional class: conventioneers, salesmen, and financial service types from Philadelphia and greater New York. I was by then a poli-sci novice as well as a Keith Richards wannabe, and so the prospect of working at, say, Deloitte and Touche excited me about as much as disinfecting a urinal did. But I learned how to interact meaningfully with adults. More than that, I think I learned what, in retrospect, might be the most important thing for kids and young adults to learn: how to endure boredom, dissatisfaction, and drudgery.

The child psychologist and author of Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, Dan Kindlon, put it well when he observed that affluent young people today have trouble handling even the slightest “twinge of non-euphoria.”

I’ve talked about this with the children of my sister-in-law, who are in their teens and early-20s. “Have you ever had to regularly perform a task,” I asked, “that made you feel like, ‘I can’t stand this. I can’t wait for this to be over?’ If so, keep that feeling close—and remember how you coped with it. Because, often, adult life—a full-time job, parenting—is like that.”

To wrap this up where we began: forget about Soviet service economy workers; for them, the idea of social mobility was a bad joke. In America, “flair“-enforcement can of course be taken too far, but there’s nothing inherently sinister about it. It is the culture’s way of saying, “Suck it up. Do your job. The rest of the world does not exist for your personal fulfillment or entertainment.”

about the author

Scott Galupo is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Va. In addition to contributing to The American Conservative, he writes for TheWeek.com and reviews live music for The Washington Post. He was formerly a staff writer for The Washington Times and worked on Capitol Hill. He lives with his wife and two children and writes about politics to support his guitar habit.

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