I have had a long and difficult relationship with politeness, having lived in three very different areas of the country, plus growing up in a Canadian family. Canadians, well renowned for their politeness, are nevertheless not in perfect agreement with everybody everywhere else (or each other, for that matter.) Individual Canadians are not necessarily up to the Mountie Gold Standard. (Didn't know there was one did you?) Well, and many times Canadians seem polite to strangers who do not realize they are being very sarcastic. Often with each other. So I know polite, but it is not the same flavor in Windsor as in Detroit or Salt Lake City or Boston.
I grew up in Detroit, a rough town at the best of times, but very much influenced by it's northern (in some places where the river bends, actually to the south, but let's not quibble) neighbor. But also the raucous liveliness of both black and middle European shouting and hand talk, added to big city privacy, and the street smarts to brusquely deflect beggars, muggers or hucksters. A polite person would adapt to the requirements of the context, others would wind up offending, or being victimized. Politeness greased the rubbing together of so many people from so many backgrounds and expectations. It was an aloof and cold manner, that could not be described as friendly.
Detroit public politeness (at least when I was growing up there) tended toward the assumption of dishonesty and threat - where quiet avoidance of social interaction, especially on the street, was a safety measure. In Boston generally, on the T(train) especially, silence is the rule, even when giving up one's seat. Unless the individual is clearly out of line, insane or pushy, talking is a clear indicator of a need for assistance, and is usually responded to helpfully. Read any blog from Eastern Urban centers with public transport, and you will see humorous lists of Rules - like "Do not floss on the train... just ... don't." The politeness of most commuters means that they pretend not to notice such lapses, unless it is intrusive on someone else. With near collisions, I might hear an "excuse me." If we actually hit (rare) I will hear a "sorry" as they continue past.
Then there is Utah, Salt Lake City in particular, where people will stand clearly in the only pathway and have conversation, not allowing anyone past. I have been more often jostled or had to force my way through much thinner crowds there than in the densely packed streets here in Boston. In Utah the women can still expect their menfolk to run around the car to open the door for them, and in exchange they are expected to be unbearably sweet and docile. I often found skin deep friendliness to be a mask for appalling and breathtaking rudeness and manipulation. Or for moral weakness excused. Some truly decent people who grew up there struggle to be so outwardly sugary, and still keep their personal boundaries and integrity intact without resorting to becoming angry and resentful themselves. They confuse "niceness" with polite behaviour, and get pushed into accepting what can only be described as evil. They do not call spades spades, because that would not be nice. They prevaricate and squirm, seeing niceness as more important than honesty or standing by their core values. To fight is seen as rude, even in a just cause. Even the ones who succeed in keeping some integrity bear the scars of unbearable niceness.
So I need to offer my definition of polite behaviour for one of those so scarred. Every culture has a series of rules and expectations, which individuals can either use to ease interpersonal friction, or to manipulate people. I will take, for instance, as a silly example, the Canadian, and Northern Mid-Western Rule of Three of Hospitality. It goes a bit like this...
Offer#1 "Would you like some tea?"
Refusal #1 "No, thanks, I'm fine."
Offer #2 "I just got the kettle on, are you sure?"
Refusal #2 "Oh, I really don't want to put you to any trouble."
Offer Withdrawal #1 "I really do have to get going, see you later then, eh?" (Conversation ends)
Offer #3 "No trouble at all, I was going to have a cup myself."
Refusal #3 "No, I really have to get going, but thanks." (interchange ends)
Acceptance "Well, that would be very nice, if you are sure you don't mind."
This is the ideal, the host and guest and both get what they want. When it gets manipulative is when the host only offers once. Twice is fine, if the host would really be put out, only had enough for one, was an a hurry, whatever. Four offers is badgering. A guest who says yes at once better be crawling out of the desert, s/he must allow that the first offer is merely for form. A guest who says no after three should not be put out if not offered again. It is an arbitrary number, but accepted in this culture. A polite host will be aware of someone from elsewhere, and either explain the rule or pick up on other clues and respond accordingly. A rude one will apply the rule to their own benefit, and make allowances for no one, while breaking it for themselves when it is convenient.
But there are more important examples. My Aunt Evelyn volunteered for Birthright, a pro adoption anti-abortion group, that posed as a neutral pregnancy help service. She was devoutly Catholic and lost several pregnancies, and an adopted child (taken back by her birth mother). I am unabashedly pro-abortion, any woman who does not want a child should under no circumstances be forced, coerced, to have one. If my mother asked me if I would have had her abort me, I would say- yes. I'm here, and have made myself a good life, but if I could erase my childhood, I would, no question. I would never have made a point of telling my aunt this, out of deep respect for her life, and her kindly and deeply held beliefs. She had every right to make her own choices, and I mine. She would not have tried to pin me down on the issue. If she had, I would have asked to be allowed my privacy. I did not need her to agree with me in order to think her polite. She would not have forced me to overtly agree with her in order to be seen as polite.
The heart of this is to be gracious, and make others feel acknowledged and wanted, even if it is inconvenient. To allow for friendly refusal and a limitation on both unwanted hospitality and imposition. It allows for both communication and an OUT. It is perfectly polite to deflect impolite requests, even to outright refuse them. At the lowest level is sarcasm- which is to say funny- responses when one person is not playing fairly. Because if we can laugh at the error, it is simply an error, not meanness. Even if it was meanness.
If necessary, brusqueness is the next step, implying a more serious error of interchange, in terms of pushing too hard or prying or being inconsiderate of context or time constraints. The implication is that the other person was being thoughtless or stupid, rather than mean or dishonest, even if they are being mean or dishonest.
Outright rudeness is perfectly acceptable when the other person is clearly dishonest or mean, a sidewalk hustler, abusive beggar, forcing their obviously different from your viewpoint, or any solicitation to illegal, unethical or grossly inappropriate services. At this point it is perfectly acceptable to indicate that what you are being asked is unethical, illegal or coercive. If you absolutely have to be nice, a "teaching" tone would be acceptable. "Have you thought of taking an ethics class, going to the police, asking me how I feel?" Because being considerate does not mean being a doormat, it means considering the other person's point of view. If they are not considering me, it is fair to ask them to. If they do not, I are under no further obligation to comply.
So let us be fair, and honest, fight for what is right, treat each other decently, and stand firm, with all due respect for the toes of our fellow travelers. But say please and thank you, and sorry, and don't push or yell. Because politeness really is not dependent on how many times I do or do not offer tea, or how many times you refuse. But I have just put the kettle on......really, no trouble at all.
Labels: Canada, custom, funny