“[Beneatha Younger:]… He said everybody ought to learn how to sit down and hate each other with good Christian fellowship.” ~excerpt from Act II, Scene 3 of A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
I go to a grocery store to buy myself a carton of ice cream and quickly enter the fast checkout lane. The cashier looks briefly at me and, in a toneless voice, asks me how I am doing. Now, I pause. There are 3 possible reactions to this overused, unemotional question coming from a stranger: #1, I ignore the question altogether, since I don’t think the cashier cares how I am doing either way; #2, I care less and use a toneless voice to reply “Fine,” the accepted reply to such an inquiry straight out of an etiquette book; #3, I ask the cashier a question instead of replying or I come up with the most original (polite or rude) statement possible as an answer to “How are you doing?”. Here is the possibility to do something different or to be insipid. Whatever I choose, it doesn’t really matter, does it? The probability that my response will be effective in any way is low. But it is this kind of situation that constitutes what society labels “the rules of politeness” and how you should act.
Did I say “should act”? I meant “must act.” Let’s face the face of Politeness. Whether you’re a business associate bargaining in a deal, a sales clerk working in a store, a person who simply wants to resolve an issue, or a shopper who needs to return a defective item to a store, you have to adhere to the rules of etiquette. No, you do not have a choice, like most modern teenagers need to think. Look what happens if you raise your voice in an argument in a public place like a bank. A bank teller will “politely” tell you to stop, or he/she will call security. Threats are masked by a false sense of polite authority. If you go against “the rules” and say what you think, you will be stopped. Every letter that has demands or complaints is merely a threat in disguise, covered by some phrase like “respectfully request,” when all the organization or person is saying is that if you do not do what they say, they will…expel you permanently. Or whatever threat works best. It makes no difference if you are acting within the law…freedom is and has always been a figure of speech.
Another facial expression of Politeness is to what end you make your acquaintanceship with it. Basically, whenever people use what they call “good manners,” they are trying to persuade you in mild terms in order to achieve what they want, the result being your actions mirroring their ultimate intent. For example: you have an overdraft fee on your bank account, and it is not justified. You have no idea how it got there, and why your account is overdrawn when you’re sure you had a sufficient balance. Now your account is overdrawn, and you are furious, since it all happened so suddenly. You cannot fix it online, a true pity because the Internet is such a simple, uncomplicated way to reach your ulterior wants without risking actual interaction. Therefore, you call the banking center. You have to deal with automated messages, which irritate your patience, and then you have a chance to fix the problem by speaking to a person who has the power to fix it. They call this “people skills” instead of politeness skills. Your mind is thinking one thing: be persuasive, stay cool, and the banker will do exactly what you want them to, within reason. In steps Politeness, the barrier between you and the other person that conceals the fact that your “good manners” are the means to one end: getting what you want. Isn’t that what this is all about? When you want to pass someone by who is in your way, “Excuse me” are just two swift words that mean nothing except an avoidance of a scene in which the other person complains about being pushed around. Right?
Moreover, most people have learned this system of polite manipulation in their childhood. They do not have good manners (or what society says are good manners) because they are really nice and want to treat the other person well during mutual interaction. Call me cynical, but people are out to grab what they want. Their actions have motives. And every motive has an end to achieve. If I respond “Fine” to a store clerk when they ask me some random question they are taught to say by their employers for society’s sake, it’s because I want to get the process over with as soon as possible, not because I’m really fine or care that the clerk is asking me anything. Selfish, but true. And I believe that the whole concept of good manners and politeness are selfish…that they are society’s means to do what they want. And when you resist, when you are not rude but firm, when you do not accept to be “polite” when you have cause to be angry, when you stand up for what you know and evade any chance for polite dismissal, then you’re in hot water. Because “good manners” are not a way of acting, they are the way you have to act…unless you want to be threatened with “security” or “the cops” every time you have a dispute. And that’s another story, when you have to face either of them.
I’m not saying that you must be polite or (even worse) be rude and walk all over people…I’m saying that society has left us little choice in the matter. I applaud everyone who actually has good manners for manners’ sake, because they genuinely want to treat others well. Unfortunately…the idea of “politeness”…this idea is dangerous and ridiculous, and a serious issue in itself. When you have to deal with other people in order to reach your goal, which happens all the time, I can only give this advice: Be careful.