I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with politeness. As a teenager, three factors combined to create in me a contempt for it: pride, introversion and Christianity.
Introverts are, I believe, at a temperamental disadvantage in the politeness stakes. Even when we try our hardest, we always seem less polite than extroverts on their worst day, and this always seemed unfair to me. But, being a proud person, I was not content to just live with this sense of injustice, I needed to find a way in which my lack of politeness actually made me morally superior to those for whom politeness came so easily.
Luckily, this desire dovetailed perfectly with another area of struggle for me, and that was my increasing discomfort with the faith that I had grown up with. For better or for worse, it had too tight a hold on me for me to let it go, but at the same time, I became more and more desperate to disassociate myself from its public image.
Obviously, a very significant aspect of this image was the association of Christianity with bourgeois morality – the kind of morality that was designed to establish your superiority to the other, rather than being a guide to loving and compassionate engagement with the other. An abandonment of any attempt to be polite seemed to me to be the perfect way to signal to anyone I met my wholesale rejection of this type of moralising Christianity, and everything that went with it. After all, nothing makes it clearer to other people that you have no interest in dictating to them what they can and cannot do with their own body than an absolute refusal to ask them how their day is going. It was win/win. I got to be a sullen, teenage introvert, and feel morally superior, at the same time.
It was all going brilliantly until, when I was about 19, the mother of my then girlfriend described me (and I do not, in any way, exaggerate) as a psychological vampire, who was sucking every ounce of drive and positivity (for which read politeness) out of her daughter. It was this, in combination with other similar, though less extreme, instances of negative feedback, that led me to re-evaluate my stance on etiquette, and consider that perhaps I had thrown the polite baby out with the fragrant bathwater.
It has, however, remained a two steps forward, one step back process for me, ever since. If I’m tired, or distracted, I will revert to my default setting of aloof and uninterested. And I’m sure that very few of my friends would, even now, consider me a polite person. But at least I’m not smug about it anymore.
Anyway, what triggered in me all this reflection on my checkered history with good manners was an article on politeness posted by a friend of mine. It was called ‘How to be Polite‘ and I liked it because it was a take on politeness that was new for me, suggesting as it did that politeness could be a way of keeping yourself safe emotionally, of suspending judgement and of being kind in an indirect way. I won’t try to summarise it beyond that, better if you read it yourself. What stayed with me in the end, though, was just how much the writer dug politeness. Being polite was core to his sense of who he was. As a child he had found it to be a way of coping with things, and of managing his interior life and his relationships, and this orientation towards politeness had never changed.
It kind of made me wish that this had been true for me. It would have made my life a lot easier. I think that is actually all I am trying to say here. I wish politeness came more easily to me, because it’s pretty handy. But it doesn’t. And that’s okay. I just have to use other ways of staying emotionally safe and managing my own interior life and my relationships. And in case you’re worried about me, it’s okay; I have found a few.
By contrast, if a conversation I overheard the other day is anything to go by, it looks like things may be somewhat different for my first born child.
My partner was reading ‘Where the Wild Things Are‘ are to her and they had got to the page where Max, our hero, decides to leave the land of the Wild Things and head back home. The Wild Things beg him not to go, but Max just says, ‘No!’
As this line was read, Tilly immediately piped up with,’That’s not very nice. He should have said: ‘No, thanks. I’d really like to go home now, but I can come back another time.”
It seems that, when it comes to politeness at least, this little apple has fallen a long way from the paternal tree…and a good thing too.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read this!