Suzanne Tobias

Lesson learned from Grand Rapids: Don’t annoy a whole city with generalizations

Downtown Grand Rapids, Mich.
Downtown Grand Rapids, Mich.

Well played, Grand Rapids.

Last week in this space, I called readers’ attention to a law in Grand Rapids, Mich., that had been voted off the books because city leaders there decided it was vague, unenforceable and probably unconstitutional.

That law, which stated that “no person shall willfully annoy another person,” was basic common sense, I argued.

I explained that “Don’t be annoying on purpose” is a long-held rule in the Tobias home, and that I sometimes have to enforce it – with a stern look or withdrawn privileges – when one of my teenagers blatantly breaks it.

Another commandment in our house, I wrote, is the Golden Rule: Treat other people the way you want to be treated.

And then, right there in the first line of the column, I went and broke that rule.

I wrote: “I’ve never visited Grand Rapids, Mich., and now I’m not sure I want to.”

My point, I suppose, sarcastic as it was, was that the ordinance about being annoying made sense – in life, if not in law – and a hearty “Pshaw!” to any town that decided otherwise. So there.

I should have realized words hurt. And they travel. And the good people of Grand Rapids, Mich., did not deserve to be struck from anyone’s current or future travel plans because of some sweeping generalization that they don’t value common sense.

Brett Thomas, a television anchor on a morning show in Grand Rapids, pointed this out in a segment titled, “Visit Grand Rapids! An open reply to the Wichita Eagle,” which he shared via Twitter last week.

In it, Thomas, who grew up in Kansas, noted that “Grand Rapids is a beautiful city, and so are the people here.”

Each year it hosts Art Prize, an award-winning, two-week art festival, he pointed out. Its downtown is vibrant and a model for other cities. It is minutes away from the pristine beaches of Sleeping Bear Dunes, recently voted the “Most Beautiful Place in America.”

If that weren’t enough, Thomas said, Grand Rapids has “a craft brew scene so vibrant, we hold the title of Beer City U.S.A.

“You really should come visit, Ms. Perez Tobias,” Thomas said. “You really shouldn’t base your opinion on one little thing.”

Having lived in Kansas nearly 24 years, I should know not to cast aspersions on a whole place based on the behavior or decisions of a few – or before seeing it for myself. (Would most people in Michigan know the beauty of a Flint Hills sunset? Likely not.)

Having been a parent more than 16 years, I should be a little better at practicing what I preach.

Having been a writer for a long time now, I should have known the first sentence of last week’s column wasn’t really funny or fair.

This week’s lesson, then, is about the importance of admitting when you make a mistake. It’s about apologizing rather than being defensive. It’s about nodding, smiling and acknowledging that sometimes we say things without considering the consequences – and that’s annoying.

But seriously, Grand Rapids: You had me at “Beer City.”

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