The Insult of Being Polite

Most of us would agree that there is no need for rude attitudes these days. If you recall that it takes less muscles in the face to conjure up a smile than a frown, then it is a wonder why we waste so much energy when we could all bask in a little effortless happiness. And it is certainly not as concerning to some as hugging trees.  

Most of us will remember how our parents taught us to mind our please and thank yous… whether it be by harsh reprimand or ‘that serious look’ on their faces. Depending which schools we attended, our teachers may have applied the same principles as well. Thankfully, a ruler never fell swiftly upon the palm of my hand.

We would have also been told to respect our elders, or anyone in general, for respect is only gained when shown to others. I know many will contest this, including myself, but when applied between intelligent people, it really does work. I remember attending a funeral in Spain a few years ago, and was humbled by the sight of an elderly man stopping in his tracks to take off his hat as the hearse drove past him, in a show of respect towards the departed. Nowadays, youths will leave their caps on while they have dinner at a restaurant, and nobody seems to care.

We may have been told not to scream, because it was bad manners, especially in public. Hold doors open for people. Stop to let others pass in front of us. The list goes on, but over the years, I have come to learn that being polite can sometimes be the greatest insult of all.

A very simple example to start with is this one. We’ve all had that crumb on the side of our mouth that nobody bothered to point out at the dinner table, leaving us to find it when we go off to the washroom to freshen up and feel like idiots when the little element of discord snickers at our reflection in the mirror. What does it really take to make a silent gesture to tell you about it? In essence, nothing. In practise, obviously too much for some to bother. And they just grin or feign ignorance because they didn’t want to embarrass you at the table… Pardon me?

Then there are those who, finding confrontation difficult or uncomfortable, avoid telling you they no longer want to be in your company just by stepping back and hoping you will figure it out from their silence and absence, or relying on a grape from the vine to whisper it in your ear. This is probably the most irritating and insulting of all, especially if you were very close to one another for a time. Grown ups who never quite grew up…

Or those who, after falling out of touch for a long time for whatever reason, continue to hide in embarrassment and choose not to get back in touch. This goes beyond politeness, but I actually don’t know what to call it as I’m still trying to understand it. Yet some people are so cemented in their ways that they will stubbornly block their own growth, rather than allow for change. Even when a simple, “I’m sorry I haven’t kept in touch. Now… how are you?” could work wonders.

Whether it is a matter of pride, fear, lack of people skills, or whatever one wishes to call it, one thing is clear; being polite often involves having to do things we are not comfortable with. In the same way that many people will obscure the truth because they are afraid it will hurt somebody, the pain will be greater because of the attempt to hide things or soften the blow.

I’ve had my fair shaire of truths, half-truths, and un-truths. And I really don’t like hurting people, but I’m learning that sometimes it is better to pull that tooth in one confident yank instead of several mild attempts, which build up the awful blunt pain that seeps its way to the bottom of your stomach and pulls you down.

And I am grateful for the friends who challenge me in healthy, constructive ways, even if at times I have to deconstruct a part of myself in order to rebuild it for my own improvement.

Of course this poses the question, at which point do we start saying we cannot change, when essentially we are the only ones with the power and responsibility to change ourselves?