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Who gets to determine what constitutes politeness? In whose favour are the rules of politeness made?

I’m thinking about rules in my context like

  • Asking after someone’s health as part of a greeting.
  • Asking what someone’s job is when you meet.
  • What determines who stands up for whom on public transport.
  • Asking women about their husband/boyfriend and kids, and asking men about their wife/girlfriend.
  • How it’s polite to address someone using their title, but these are generally gendered along binary lines.

It seems kind of normative, no? If one responds by saying that one’s health is bad, people usually freeze up, because they’re not used to a response other than “fine, thanks”. I’ve met way too many stay at home mums who have to respond awkwardly when they get the “what do you do” question. I’ve heard of kids being treated with shocking rudeness for simply taking up space on public transport because “they don’t pay for their tickets”. Women are assumed to be the ones looking after the kids, and everyone’s supposed to be partnered and straight, which is just painful. And there’s seriously nothing title-wise I’ve encountered for people outside the gender binary apart from things like Dr., which really doesn’t help most people.

These politenesses are designed to boost certain kinds of people. But they’re embarrassing for people who lie outside the default. That’s quite the opposite of the purported intent of politeness!

I think ground rules are good. I think it’s useful to have certain baselines so we know when someone is trying to be respectful towards another person. I think the problem comes in when filling those forms, showing that you have mastered this set of social skills, becomes the important thing. The important thing ought to be displaying kindness and respect to a given individual, which means adapting particular politenesses for particular situations.

Well, hang on. How does one know when to do that? After all, the bulk of the regulations are saved for interacting with new people – part of intimacy is that you get to relax certain rules and find your own. I think the trick might lie in the balance, in adapting politenesses to probabilities, and to cause as little potential embarrassment as possible. I ask “how’re things?” or “tell me about yourself” until I get a feel for the zones that might be no-go. These are open-ended questions that both show interest in the other person and allow them to direct the conversations along lines that are comfortable for them. I talk about neutral things instead of assuming intimacies. It saves everyone – I hope! – a bit of awkwardness and pain.

Previously: How are you?

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