Saturday, August 16, 2014

Should We Return to Politeness?

Why are we still debating the issue? Why do we have to keep explaining why anyone should be polite?

Our continuing need to persuade people to practice good manners counts as a symptom.

Roland Martin recently described the small acts of rudeness he encounters on a daily basis:

The other day, I held the door open for three people at the NBC NewsChannel building where we shoot my TV One show, and they walked in as if I was the doorman. No hello, thank you, nothing.

I experience this a lot with women. You hold the door open for them and they don’t even bother to say thank you. Look, I’m not trying to get your phone number or Twitter handle, I’m just being a courteous man. Geez. You would think a simple “thank you” would suffice.

How about being at the grocery store and as you are standing there perusing something on the shelf, someone walks in front of you like you are a piece of furniture. Is “excuse me” really that hard to say?

Sure, you may call this petty, but it really does chap my hide! Maybe it was my upbringing in Texas, where it was common to say “thank you” or “excuse me.”

It’s worse. Many people take pride in being abrasive. They believe they are being more authentic.

We would like to say that they do not know any better, but, truth be told, they have been brought up not to have good manners… because manners, don’t you know, are condescending and offensive.

Some women, for example, will take offense if you open a door for them. So, why bother?

So, Paul Ford has posted about the value of being polite. It seems self-evident, but it probably isn’t.

Ford argues that being polite helps to get things done. People cooperate better when there is less drama. More politeness means less drama.

Better yet, when you are polite to people they seem naturally inclined to like you.

Ford believes that politeness takes time to produce real benefits. It’s not about a single gesture, but a consistent pattern of courteous actions. After all, a single gesture can mean anything. Repeated polite gestures must mean that you like the other person and seek to have a harmonious relationship:

… the stubborn power of politeness over time. Over time. That’s the thing. Mostly we talk about politeness in the moment. Please, thank you, no go ahead, I like your hat, cool shoes, you look nice today, please take my seat, sir, ma’am, etc. All good, but fleeting.

Ah yes, the virtue of formality. The joy of etiquette. Ford offers an interesting interpretation:

What I found most appealing was the way that the practice of etiquette let you draw a protective circle around yourself and your emotions. By following the strictures in the book, you could drag yourself through a terrible situation and when it was all over, you could throw your white gloves in the dirty laundry hamper and move on with your life. I figured there was a big world out there and etiquette was going to come in handy along the way.

Etiquette buys you time. It allows you to get to know another person slowly and surely. It lets you judge his or her character. It prevents you from being intrusive and abrasive.

The opposite of etiquette is the hookup culture.

Etiquette also protects you from snap judgments.

When you choose a friend, what matters is character. I would not preclude the possibility that you can judge a person’s character in a quick glance. We reveal far more than we know with our appearance, our demeanor and our gestures. But, in most cases, it is better to take the time to get to know an individual, to make a judgment based on more than an initial impression.

Politeness creates what Ford calls a buffer zone around each of you. He advises, sagely, that we ought not to reach out and touch people. That is, we should not be overly familiar with people we barely know.

Even with people we know fairly well, when you have to choose between telling some there’s something crawling in his hair and plucking it out yourself, choose the former and not the latter.

In Ford’s words:

The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

When it comes to striking up a conversation with just about anyone, Ford advises you to show some interest in whatever the other person does for a living. It’s inevitable that the topic will arise. It always does. A polite person asks for details about something that is vital to an individual’s identity.

This has a special poignancy this week, but people will not connect with you if you reduce them to an anonymous audience, and tell the best jokes in the world. It’s better to show them that you care about them.

Yet, this technique also requires that you offer up some information about yourself. A one-sided conversation will quickly become boring.

Recounting a conversation with a woman at he met at a party, Ford exults in his ability to get her to talk about her job but adds that he revealed nothing about himself, not even his name.

Dare I say, he should not feel proud of himself. A good etiquette book would tell Ford that if he wanted to see the woman again he should have introduced himself and told her his name. To do otherwise was rude and manipulative.


Anonymous said...

"Why are we still debating the issue? Why do we have to keep explaining why anyone should be polite?"

HIPSTER: Because politeness might interfere or delay what someone wants to do. Besides, it's passé. It's a relic from an age where etiquette and protocol were aristocratic, white European structures that required people to be phony. We're much more sophisticated and "authentic" today. And we're busy. Being polite takes a moment we don't have to spare. "Do unto others as you would have done unto you" is a high standard. It's hard. I've got stuff to do. (Begin tapping on iPhone, exit stage left)

That's why we have to keep explaining. And it's amazing, isn't it? As for what Roland Martin's anecdote points out, this is the Age of Entitlement. What Paul Ford points to is this deep concept: there are other people around. Astounding!

That's where we're at. People see etiquette as a social anachronism. It's not. It really is an efficient social structure that allows you to actually pay attention to the conversation they're in. It is a "buffer zone." It's no different than traffic rules. Would you want to drive unfamiliar roads with no streetlights, no lines on the pavement, no stop signs? Heck, what if there were no paved roads and you still wanted to get somewhere? You couldn't. That's where we are now in terms of our social relationships and interactions: the Wild West. It's chaos. We've become self-absorbed savages, hypnotized by the Glowing Box. In the age of "mindfulness" and "a new consciousness" and a "shared conscience" there's none of it in the most BASIC AREAS of social life.

A pity, yet it's just more collateral damage. What kind of society are we moving toward? Does anyone like it?


Anonymous said...

What does sharia law say about politeness? Maybe we have something to look forward to, and ISIS really isn't all that bad!

Ares Olympus said...

Stuart, you end with the question of manipulation, and it reminds me, in the past when someone claimed I was manipulative, I tried to reflect back on my behavior, and found it very difficult to clarify.

After some thought I concluded most objectively that to be manipulative is to not be transparent, to have motives that are not expressed openly. But from that view you might argue all social etiquette is manipulative, because you can't see what's behind someone else's kindness, you can't always see what's expected in return for their kindness.

Even the door-opening story looks like trouble. If I open a door for someone else, and they ignore me, and I feel like a doorman, feel used and abused, perhaps that response is accurate, but perhaps it shows I have an ulterior motive, even if a minor one, needing social recognition, its still a somewhat controlling position. And it might make a difference if I'm 0 for 100 attempts versus 0 for 1 in my recognition.

I can agree people SHOULD be aware of their surroundings, and be aware when others are doing us kindness, whether they are lowly paid doorman, or a stranger who has a few second or kindness to offer, a thank you is good and appropriate, but I don't think it ought to be expected, to be used as an excuse why there's something wrong with others.

I remember a year or two ago there was a meme video showing a sequence of people, basically doing good deeds for someone else, and the brightening their day, and the chain continued for a dozen people.

If the video wanted to be more cynical, it would end with a Ebenezer Scrooge character saying "Bah, humbug!" after a boy scout saw him limping across the street because he forgot his cane, and refusing help.

So that would be rude, and the boy scout would have a choice, to take the rudeness literally, and assume Scrooge didn't need help and walk away, or he might see wounded pride, and still try to help indirectly anyway, walking along side, even after the light changed to Don't walk, giving kind gestures of awareness to the drivers to wait a bit, so Scrooge could finish crossing safely. Maybe "do gooders" can compensate for grumps, or maybe they're enabling? Who knows?

So I don't see any absolute right or wrong answers except that politeness if it means anything must be voluntary, and it would seem to benefit the giver as much as the receiver, BUT when the giver finds himself hurt, he should question his state of mind, and his motives for requiring others conform to his expectations, and if needed, consider how he can ask for what he needs more directly.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. I remember a widow in my neighborhood died a few years ago, and a few years before that she had her house "invaded" and decluttered by the city firechief because she was a packrat, and had been using her husband's generous pension to go shopping every day. Apparently much of the stuff piled to the ceiling in her house was in original bags in perfect condition.

Anyway, I guess she admitted that she had become a shopaholic because she liked to talk to the sales people, and felt obligated to buy something because of their attention towards her.

So that's rather messy. I wouldn't say the salespeople "manipulated" her into buying things, and she had the money, so if she had been a proper shopaholic, and donated her purchases to a local thrift store or something, perhaps it would all make sense?

But maybe it also shows, in a busy world, in a prideful world where you don't want to feel needy, people will PAY for attention and kindness if they can, and that is sad such lonely people can't find other ways to connect.

Anonymous said...

"I experience this a lot with women. You hold the door open for them and they don’t even bother to say thank you. Look, I’m not trying to get your phone number or Twitter handle, I’m just being a courteous man. Geez."

Being nice is nice but IMPOSING one's niceness on others is itself a form of rudeness.

Sam L. said...

Anon @ 11:48, are you saying that opening a door for someone is imposing on them?