Saturday, November 2, 2019

Realizing I Am Impolite

Just about everything about this world has confused the bejesus out of me. So what I've been doing here is piecing it together. In many cases, you're watching an idiot realize the obvious. In others you're seeing the familiar reassembled from a more distant vantage point. Sometimes I surprise even myself by overshooting and accidentally figuring out, well, sorta everything.

I'm often unsure which it is, myself. I occasionally see things others don't, and (it took 50 years to muster the confidence to concede this even to myself) it often turns out to be right. But unknowing is the father of knowing, so I can't escape the knowledge that every insight was laboriously extruded from a mucky pit of ignorance. And I can’t tell how much muckier my muck is than normal. If feels pretty damned mucky, though...

I'm in the remedial class; a slow kid flailing toward comprehension. Sometimes overshooting, sometimes embarrassing himself. So the following might be stupendously obvious. Consider me your envoy from the land of noncomprehension. I drop my findings in your lap like an eager golden retriever, and they may be gold bars or they may be dead raccoons.

I always imagined I was polite. I'm courteous. I always say "hello", "goodbye", "thank you" and "please", etc. I give people their time and their space and never push. I easily accept those who think differently, and can usually find a common framing. And I’m willing to get out of the way, being thoughtful enough to apply situational awareness. Not imagining myself to be the center of the universe, I make a concerted effort to accommodate others. What I need, and where I need to get to, are not my supreme concerns. I'll pass my exit rather than slam my brakes.

Yet if you passed out surveys to my friends about me, listing various human qualities, "polite" would seldom be circled.

Having pondered this for years, I think I've figured it out. I can only talk about it like an anthropologist describing some bizarre culture, because it represents a foreign world to me (which is precisely the problem!). Here's what I think people do:

They keep up a patter, like a foreign language dialogue.
Hello, John.
Why, hello, Mary!
How are you today, John?
Very well, Mary, and you?
I, too, am well, John. Would you like to go to the library?
Yes, Mary, there is a book I would like to read!
Etc. etc.
No twists. No surprises or wit. Certainly no Salvador Dali melting fried eggs. There's no subtext or wordplay or irony. It doesn't even offer the fresh clarity of simple, forthright communication; it's just stock phrases clumped together. And to me, it's as painful as root canal. I don't want it, nor would I ever subject anyone else to it.

If I stood in John’s shoes, I'd be Bill Murraying up the joint, deliberately toying with the flow, tossing in funny asides and double entendres. I'd make a thing of it. I'm creative, which means 1. I can't help it, and 2. I gleefully feel like I'm conjuring up a fun Christmas stocking full of little presents (eager golden retriever, remember?).

I know from painful experience that Mary might mistake my offering for an affront, though I've never quite understood why. I'm aiming to be entertaining and lively. I hate to bore people. We dehumanize each other by failing to make an effort to differentiate ourselves from machines (it’s like the ever-compounding evil of serving the world lifeless sandwiches). Everyone deserves our best, so I try to always make it special.

But Johns and Marys aren't looking for specialness. They bask in the familiarity of consistently-met expectations. What I see as boring strikes them as comfortable. Skating the surface - diligently avoiding the "meta" and other forms of self-awareness - is how one soothes.

If you don't soothe - if you mess with the pacing and defy expectations and turn things upside down to be entertaining or interesting; if you knock yourself out by baking fresh as a unique gesture for the unique soul standing before you; you're doing the opposite of soothing. And that’s what impoliteness is.

So I think I get it. Courtesy isn't about thoughtful kindness or yielding right of way. Not consideration or generosity. It's about how seamlessly you preserve the patter of the surface narrative. How deftly you establish rapport via the most easily-digested, non-disruptive response. How conscientiously you avoid flipping the script, playing with the words, deconstructing the thoughts, and inserting freshly-baked treats. Courtesy means sparing people from needing to think.

Courtesy means sparing people from needing to think.

I am, alas, the most discourteous of human beings - even though I desperately wish most people well. I figured my benevolence was what counted. This was a ridiculous and catastrophic misapprehension.

I figured it out while watching the great British TV series "Fleabag". Like all British comedies, Fleabag is full of horrible, highly unpleasant people saying absolutely disgusting things to each other, but doing so Britishly - with a tart little smile and seamless composure. Pretending to be non-angry and non-awful while excoriating is the epitome of politeness. Benevolence has nothing whatsoever to do with it. Artifice is the aim. Politeness is in the pretending.

Politeness is in the pretending.

I once found myself in London, late, in a pub. I was chatting with a local who was saying ghastly things about Americans in the most charming tone, and shamelessly hitting on my girlfriend whenever I turned my back.

Enjoying the pub and the whole scene, I wasn't paying particular attention to the villainy of it all. But as the affronts accumulated, finally I broke the rhythm of our lively banter to speak beneath the veneer. I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was not antagonistic or cutting. It wasn't unpleasant, much less disrespectful. I just rather bluntly punctured the charade of it all.

He gasped. All blood drained from his face, leaving him looking like a stunned vampire. I'd delved beneath the surface. I'd been impolite!

Sure, he'd been awful in a multitude of ways, but one couldn't question his manners. I, however, was a barbarian - though I bore him no ill will and showed no anger. My refusal to keep up my role in the parlour scene was a primal affront, leaving him like Wile E Coyote perched frozen in space beyond the cliff's edge. And that's simply not done.

What's he supposed to say now? What's his line? I'd left a brother human being adrift, without a next line!

Only a rude boor breaks up the chatty la-di-da; declines to maintain the veneer that's the intrinsic right of every member of polite society; and is so uncouth as to reframe a conversation to recognize that real people with internal lives are engaged in the current banter. I'd shined a light on the backstage area, and a gentleman never, ever, turns on the light.

This might explain why I tend to get along best with Southern Europeans, Latinos/Hispanics, and African-Americans, who are less grippy about pretense (which, in turn, might explain why those cultures are looked down upon by certain others). Come to think of it, maybe it's just that their prosaic surface la-di-da, being a bit syncopated, is more to my liking.

Please understand that none of this is self-justifying. I'm not saying "The superficial multitudes can't handle the truth", nor that I imagine myself on some superior plane. That's not it. I'm not an adolescent. I respect the propositions of human culture.

It had long been clear to me that people are uninterested - even averse - to delving below-surface; to reframing to some different perspective from the initially locked/loaded one. I've recognized the primacy of The Narrative Thread (which explains why many people are panicked upon losing their train of thought). But I hadn't realized that charade preservation was what politeness is. I honestly never got that. I feel like a newborn baby, unsure what to even do with this information.


Display Name said...

Great post Jim. This might explain why I often think of myself as shuffling through a script trying to find my lines. Doh.

Unknown said...

Hi Jim. Nice post. I agree with you... to a point. Politeness can be grating, but it doesn't seem so vacuous if you imagine a counterfactual situation: a world where people don't say "thank you" or "have a nice day" or even "thanks, got your message." Meaning, the world we're increasingly experiencing, where people don't even let you know they've received your email, or think you would need a receipt ("why would you need that, since I have one?" etc). I would argue that manners are the baseline that *allowed* you to know what that British lad was trying to say without it coming to blows. Sort of like establishing the key, which you can then play in or against. The alternative is not necessarily a more creative conversation so much as no conversation at all.

You'll notice that I dispensed with the small talk after not having talked for, I don't know, two decades? But it's nice to come across your site and see that you're still banging away.

Dave Lindsay

James Leff said...

Dave, great to hear from you! Thanks for reading and posting!

Anonymous coward said...

Sparing people the need to think is a critical part of society, that is why all the conspiracy theories and hoaxes run wild. Remember the hoax of the flesh eating bananas? People still believe that.

"One, somewhat humbling, explanation is that we are all “cognitive misers” – to save time and energy, our brains use intuition rather than analysis."

"The findings, published in the February issue of the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, suggest people are more aware of the shortcuts they take than previously thought.

"Although we might be cognitive misers, we are not happy fools who blindly answer erroneous questions without realizing it," the authors write in the paper."

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