It's Not Fake to Be Polite: A Defense of Etiquette


Over the past day or so (and constantly over the past several centuries), there has been a lot of talk about how people (mostly women) should and should not speak. First, there was Senator Kirsten Gillibrand slightly confusing bit of advice on how a woman who wants to be taken seriously should “speak less like a young girl and more like a young, aspiring professional” (which is to say she should talk in direct, declarative statements) and now there’s this article from The Wall Street Journal on “verbal tee-ups,” also known as the qualifiers people use to make themselves sound more polite (sometimes deceptively so) in conversation.

WSJ writer Elizabeth Bernstein writes:

Language experts have textbook names for these phrases—”performatives,” or “qualifiers.” Essentially, taken alone, they express a simple thought, such as “I am writing to say…” At first, they seem harmless, formal, maybe even polite. But coming before another statement, they often signal that bad news, or even some dishonesty on the part of the speaker, will follow.

Examples of performatives range from the innocuous “I’m just trying to say that…” to the always cringe-worthy “No offense, but…” Basically, they are the verbal tricks we use to soften our statements and make them seem friendly and caring.

Bernstein writes that this isn’t a gender issue and that men and women are equally guilty of implementing qualifiers, but I don’t agree. All of the anecdotal evidence Bernstein cites comes from fellow women (this could simply be because she used her female friend pool as examples) and — as for my own anecdotal evidence — in my personal experience, women are far more likely to use “verbal tee-ups” than men are, which is probably what Senator Gillibrand was getting at when she advised us working broads to cut out the sweet talk if we want to be taken seriously.

While Gillibrand’s advice is a little problematic, it’s still something to consider. Culturally and socially, we women are saddled with the expectation to constantly be nice and likable — an unfair expectation that can often make it hard to demand what you want without being considered a huge bitch.

I will now post the Nicki Minaj pickle juice rant because, when given an opportunity, a person should ALWAYS post the Nicki Minaj pickle juice rant:

First, she compares herself to her mentor Lil’ Wayne to illustrate the double standard she faces when she’s assertive, the way he is:

“When Wayne comes on the set and says, “Don’t fucking talk to me. Have my fucking music ready. Get the fuck up out of my face…It’s cool. But every time I put my foot down and stand up for myself, it’s like, “Ooooh… We heard about Nicki Minaj.”

Towards the end, she succinctly sums up how she’s viewed negatively for sticking up for herself professionally:

“When I am assertive, I’m a bitch. When a man is assertive he’s a boss.”

It’s interesting and complex to approach language and behavior from a gender point-of-view, but sometimes it can feel like a lose-lose situation. Sure, a woman should get to be a boss like Nicki, she should get to go in and own a board meeting or make a deal using the same language a man uses, but what if you are person who likes being polite? Are you allowed to do that and still be successful?

In her article, Bernstein cites a very specific type of verbal attack that any of us who survived middle school are probably familiar with. We’ll call it the “I’m only telling you this because I’m your friend” assault. It’s an insult cloaked in care, the definitive concern troll. “I’m only telling you this because I’m your friend, but you should really lose weight.” “I’m only telling you this because I’m your friend, but no one here really likes you.”

This is fake politeness. It’s bullshit. It’s nasty. It’s dishonest. But somehow, the experts who Bernstein quotes in her article article manage to apply this dickish fakery to politeness in general:

“Politeness is another word for deception,” says James W. Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department of the University of Texas at Austin, who studies these phrases. “The point is to formalize social relations so you don’t have to reveal your true self.”

But what if — and I’m from the midwest so I know these people exist — being polite is your true self? What if you genuinely like being kind and respectful to other people? Frankly, I resent the notion that this could be confused with being fake.

Besides, if your personality is a naturally demanding and selfish one, it’s probably good that you act “deceptively” polite. Say “Excuse me” rather than “Get out of my way.” Be cooperative, be helpful, it takes a village, you know the rest.

It’s through politeness that the world functions properly. (The number of conflicts I’ve seen that could have been completely avoided had both parties decided to not be huge assholes to each other are COUNTLESS.) Maybe, rather than women deciding to get less polite (which is not to say that they shouldn’t get more assertive), everyone — men and women — should decide to get MORE polite. Here’s an easy rule to live by: Ask nicely first. When that doesn’t work, become the bad boss bitch that you know you are and get what you need.

Image via Shutterstock.

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