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Happiness Is Never Having To say You’re sorry…


One more on the Anglo-American tip, and this one only took me a week to get around to. Last week’s Village Voice included an essay by James Westcott entitled Against Politeness. As “an Englishman in New York,” Westcott seizes on publication of Lynne Truss‘s new book Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door, to note that Truss, an English woman (in England),

might have done better to spend her time examining a more urgent problem—actually more of a pathology, in need of a national psychoanalysis. The English can’t ask clearly and directly for what they want, and this is precisely a function of our obsession with Truss-style politeness, which does a lot more than keep people safely at arm’s length. It makes us terrified of strangers and ashamed of our desires. Petulance, passive aggression, and a fear of strangers result. Give me the smoothness of New York interactions— especially with their bravado or bluntness—over the mutually assured dithering in English corner shops any day.

He’s got a point. I know how much more comfortable I felt in my skin once I came to New York and learned how to speak directly (and occasionally abruptly). I know how much I preferred honesty, however blunt, to apology. I know how much I fear each visiting English friend, for whom I will almost inevitably have to egg into asking directly for something, rather than prefacing each request with the word “Sorry.”

Westcott makes the same observation himself. That said, if you read his full column, and if you know New York, you might agree with me that for all his accurate observations of the “sorry” British psyche, he falls off track with his insistence that politeness should be avoided.

When you turn away with your goods, see how thrilling the omission of the P-word feels. The deli man doesn’t need to be patronized with politeness, and neither do you. And in cabs: Don’t expect the driver to acknowledge the destination you’ve just given him, and definitely don’t repeat it in a clearer voice. This is the worst thing you could do and a sign of terrible weakness. In the silence, you must simply trust that you’ve been heard.

He’s wrong. No, the deli man doesn’t NEED to be patronized with politeness; what he both needs and expects is sincerity. An assertive “thank you” from your good self means as much as his own insistence, for example, that he call you “my friend” (even if this is your first encounter). And I can well testify that trusting the taxi driver that you’ve been heard can lead to all kinds of wrong destinations and subsequent arguments. Insisting that your taxi driver repeat your destination is therefore a vital part of establishing your authority. So no, it’s not about leaving out the please, the sorry and the thank you – that’s just plain rude. It’s about refusing to start from a position of apology and inferiority when you are, after all, the customer – and therefore, at least in theory, “alway right.” And it’s about being restrictive but genuine in your use of such words that allow us humans to interact with, yes, a degree of politeness.

Thank you and have a nice day…

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