Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Don't Touch Me
(I'm a real live wire)

So there's this Talking Heads line running through my head today...

"I hate people when they're not polite..."
(from, I'm sad if I have to tell you this because you are missing out, their song "Psycho Killer" of course)

Now, I could probably leave the modifying clause off of that sentence, as I tend to hate people a good lot of the time. But this gets us nearer the point. I was thinking about the whole concept of being polite. Which is worse, do you think: to be rude or to be mean?

I realized that I generally go through my days thinking it's far worse to be mean, and I'm just starting to discover that/wonder if all you other people are actually the opposite, and all care more about being polite than about being nice.

And thinking about this, with David Byrne's voice in my head, it's like a whole new perspective on the world. I am not a mean person. I really don't believe in doing things out of malice. This includes making fun of people, even when it's, like, the bros all giving each other shite just to be a jerk. This includes stirring things up on the internet and mocking something just because you can (such as the new Cubs mascot). This includes punching people (and all violence, really). All of these things with spiteful but no other motivations really bother me. I actually, really think people should be nice. It bothers me when people are mean and jerky. If I am having a disagreement with someone and I say, "That's so mean!" in my mind that is it. Game over. They lose, because they were just being mean. I've obviously learned that some people don't look at things that way. (Is it Taylor Swift and me against the world?)

But what about being polite? So different. I am afraid that I am not really a polite person. This isn't intentional, usually. (Unlike the motive of malice!) But for one glaringly obvious example, I really believe in saying what you think. (Motive: saying what you think.) And I sometimes forget that there are people out there, merrily going about their lives all the time, holding back and refraining from saying what they think in this or that situation, apparently out of politeness. Also, there's the whole thing about dropping an argument just to discontinue the argument. (Motive: ?? Being afraid to argue?)  Once someone told me, "You know it's not always the most important thing to have to be right in every situation." To which I responded - um, it's not? Sure it is! Why wouldn't it be?! Whoever's right, is right. Now, if it's a difference of opinion, two people could be right, or no one could be right. But the point is, if you are right and you're trying to show the other person why X is right and Y is wrong, but the other person insists Y, apparently a lot of people think at that point you should just drop it and let the person go on thinking Y is right. But Y is not right! How can people do this? This baffles me.

So, because I am an adult (I mean, you know, more or less) and because I am smart I know how to "be polite" in certain situations, like "being professional" and "formal occasions." But today's Talking Heads-accompanied thinking is not really about holding the door open and stuff. I once used this blog to try to determine whether or not I am a literary snob. (Verdict: probably.) Today, let's use it to see if I am polite. Let's say you typed into a search engine the query "How to be polite"...what would happen? You might get a WikiHow checklist along the lines of the following:

1. Be gentle, not forceful or insistent
Oh dear. Not off to a good start. Leaving aside the misogyny (that men are allowed to be far more forceful and insistent than women are), I wouldn't even begin to try to argue that I am gentle rather than forceful in my conversations. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I need southern belle finishing school in the worst way.

2. When in doubt, observe others (topics, standards of formality, what are they doing with their coats, etc.)
OK, I'm better at this. Especially when entering new social gatherings or new workplaces, I'm super into hanging back and observing at first. It's only when I know people and situations do I start being ...er...forceful and insistent.

3. Be nice. Always be courteous...if someone annoys or insults you, don't get into an argument...
Well, I would actually prefer a distinction here between nice and courteous, because as I said there is such a difference between being not-mean and being courteous. But if it's about withdrawing from annoyances rather than arguing, then I obviously fail this one.

4. Start a conversation by asking questions about the other person. Oooh! I do that!

5. Shake hands firmly and look your acquaintance in the eye while doing so. Totes. And you know, I would like to add here that shaking hands is an accepted (in the U.S. anyway) social contact and hugging is NOT ALWAYS APPROPRIATE!  I am not a hugger, and I definitely don't want to hug everyone who goes around initiating hugs, and I happen to think it is really impolite when people hug you without tuning in at all to the fact that you are not hugging them back. So there. Hands off, people. Back away.

6. Know the proper dinner etiquette. This is my jam. ("They don't even chill the salad forks!") I will quote Martha Stewart if necessary. I don't want to hear or see you chew, and I don't want to hear your clinking and scraping silverware, and it's not just because I loathe mouth noises with every ounce of my being. I just can't believe there are people anywhere who think it's OK to smack food or talk with their mouths full, unless they were raised by wolves. (Which: no one I know.) Now, that said, when people are jamming out around the barbecue or just loafing around enjoying a pizza all greasy-finger style or when they are in China eating with their life partner in a casual place and something slippery  falls from their chopsticks, I couldn't care less if they eat with their hands or whatever, in silly casual moments. I know that proper polite hosts never serve their guests something that puts them in a difficult situation in the first place! And don't pick your teeth at the table. Gross.

7. Have a laugh which shows you are having fun without being loud. 
I've never really thought about this. Or been told about my laugh. Does that mean I pass? Not when I was a riotous 17-year-old dorm resident, obviously, but now that I am in normal life? I think I pass. When I really crack up at something, I think I tend more toward the silent, tearing up kind of hysteria, anyway, not cackling.

8. Be graceful and show elegance. 
Goddamn it, I already said, I want to go to southern belle finishing school! For reals! Although I *can* walk with a book on my head. But otherwise, fail.

9. Be aware that etiquette and manners vary depending on the cultural region you are in. Yes. Aware. I cover my shoulders lots of times for cultural reasons. I like awareness. Although I shouldn't have to watch people urinating or have children wantonly flashed at me on the streets anywhere -- are you listening, China??!

So, that's YES for culturally aware, reasonable laughing, dinner etiquette, shaking hands, asking questions, and observing others (6) but a big fat resounding NO for grace/elegance, always being courteous, and (gulp) being gentle rather than forceful or insistent (3).  While my overall score is a "win," who are we kidding? I am not polite. David Byrne hates me, even though I'm not a psycho killer.

Gentle. Not forceful or insistent. I just...how.. I can't even... ???  OK, I'll try.

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