Lessons in ‘being polite’



We all like to fancy ourselves as polite people. It is considered one of the most virtuous traits an individual can hold.

And so I try. Almost interminably so. I do not like giving it back to people, or conflict, or making someone feel bad, even if said person deserves it. In turn, I usually hope — nay, expect — people to be polite back to me.

As I grow older, though, and gain footing in the real world, I have been learning this is an absurd and foolish way to move through social interactions. It is a technique of avoidance. Expecting a certain reaction out of someone will sometimes — not always — end in disappointment.

People pleasing can feel so good until it doesn’t.

Like the time I was asked to take a house tour. No big deal, right? I complied, of course, as most people — unless your Larry David or something — would. The house was brand new, the owner was excited (and a bit tipsy) and I would never imagine declining such an offer. It started off fine — the living room, the dining room, the upstairs, etc.

But an hour and a half later, I’m still on the tour. It stretched until 2:30 in the morning.

Not expecting this sort of a marathon, but seeing no way out, I continued to wait. I was exhausted, and the signs were starting to show. But I pressed on, listening to the minute details of every object — where it came from, how it was built — for the greater good. To be polite.

Or the time I had a friend over and he played my video game for several hours. Not me with him; just him. As the time ticked by, I felt on the verge of exploding with anger. I wanted to do something else. Perhaps take a stroll outside — any activity to get me out of the basement and into the fresh air. Video games were never my thing, but he was my guest, after all, and he did assure me he could beat the game.

He did, eventually, after the daytime hours had long since waned.

I told him I was impressed, and it was not necessarily a lie. Inside, though, I felt a profound emptiness — I had watched someone play and defeat a game with nary a break. Hour after excruciating hour gone from my life.

Take something as simple as receiving gifts. I crowd up my closet with clothes from family members I know I’ll never wear. A few times I have managed to ask for the receipt in the kindest possible way, but I still end up feeling guilty for it.

There are countless other examples I won’t bother rehashing here, from my childhood onward, of being unable to escape myself from undesirable situations.

Don’t get me wrong — politeness is not bad. There is quite a difference, I’ve found, between being kind and not being able to express your true opinions. You will know which is which when the time comes: the former fills your heart, while the latter erodes your patience. stunningley@mihomepaper.com

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