Our backward culture of “politeness”

Wikipedia says “Politeness is the practical application of good manners or etiquette. It is a culturally defined phenomenon, and therefore what is considered polite in one culture can sometimes be quite rude or simply eccentric in another cultural context.”

Are we taking this notion too far though? With all the hate speech surfacing thanks to Donald Trump (and his minions), it seems we can’t take it far enough.  But there’s a difference between being kind and being polite.

I’d argue that being too polite can be detrimental to your well-being. How’s that now?  Well, if you are a people pleaser with fuzzy boundaries, then the answer is YES, it sure can be.

I’m a self-confessed people pleaser and it recently (ALMOST) got me in a jam.

I called a LYFT and headed to the Los Angeles airport.  Sometimes Lyft drivers are talkative.  I usually like to sit in silence, so I don’t encourage lots of dialogue by asking questions, but I’m always polite when the driver engages.

This particular driver, let’s call her Sharon…she was REAL chatty.  She gave me all her feelings and opinions about the Royal Wedding, including gossip about Meaghan Merkle’s family. I engaged, but in a limited way.

As we cruise through the various terminals at LAX, she says, I think Terminal 4 is Alaska Airlines.  I look at the sign and it only lists “American”.  I respond from the back, “I’m not sure about that. Doesn’t the Lyft app denote which terminal since I input the airline”. She says “I think this is the right gate. Why don’t you just get on out?”  Wait, what?

If you’ve never been to LAX, it’s a gigantic airport. It has more exits than the city I grew up in (God bless small cities!). So no, Sharon, I’m not just going to “get on out”.

Possibly she misunderstood that we’re now friends because we talked for much of the ride about the Royal Wedding, and she’s doing me a favor by dropping me at LAX?  That isn’t the case.  That isn’t my reality, even if it’s hers.

But there was a dynamic at work inside of me that happened so quickly it was barely noticeable. I felt this desire not to make waves or cause conflict.  The Maggie of 10 years ago might have gotten out of that car, just to placate Sharon.  And then been screwed because Alaska was 2 terminals away, and my flight was departing in 45 minutes. I resisted this old familiar desire to please “Sharon” (i.e. a virtual stranger who is PAID to drive me to the correct terminal) and risked whatever uncontrolled outcome “making waves” would cause; I asked her to pull over but wait, while I asked the sky cap.  He was like “nah. This is only American. Alaska is Terminal 6”.

Fucking Sharon.

We drove the 2 terminals over and I easily made my flight.

I’d argue that beyond the inconvenience of missing a flight, there is also an emotional cost.  I’d be mad at myself for not prioritizing my needs, and I’d be mad at Sharon that I missed my flight It would be one in a series of resentments that builds upon itself.  And only I would be stuck holding the trunk size baggage of painful feelings.  Drawing firm boundaries in spite of others’ judgments and feelings is real work for us people pleasers. And it takes regular practice.

There are times when we actually ignore our gut instincts in the spirit of “going along to get along” – and the stakes can be much higher than missing a flight.

I’ll never forget the scene in “Girl with a Dragon Tattoo” where Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) realizes Martin Vanger (Stellan Skarsgard) is the serial killer. Blomkvist stands in Vanger’s yard, and instead of running, he stays. To avoid a scene. That drive to be polite, overrides his survival instinct.

And it almost gets him killed.

If it hadn’t been a movie, my guess is, his politeness would have definitely gotten him killed in real life.

As the serial killer has Daniel Craig tied up and gagged, he asks him (and maybe the viewers, also),

“Why don’t people trust their instincts? They sense something is wrong. Someone is walking too close to them, maybe. You knew something was wrong. You could have run. And instead, you came back into the house. All I had to do was offer you a drink. It’s hard to believe the fear of offending is stronger than the fear of pain, but you know what… it is.”

The scene resonates deeply, probably for a lot of us.  It’s a cautionary tale, of course.  Screw worrying about making someone feel bad, or making a scene, or making an ass out of yourself.  In that moment, we should all run like hell.

I’m trying to get better at modulating my natural, open, extroverted energy, and of course still be polite, but not prioritize politeness over what’s right for me.  Boundary setting. I’m working on it. Like with the Lyft driver at LAX. Sharon is a small but important example of change.

Going one step further, it’s especially important to notice when something doesn’t FEEL right. This is when someone has stepped WAY past healthy boundaries.  They call the stomach “the emotional brain”, and often, it is sending us a message. That’s where the term “gut instinct” comes from.  Notice when the hair on the back of my neck sticks up, for example.  Or you simply have “a feeling”.


Your core essential self is telling you something. Your acculturated self may be tempted to dismiss it because it’s contrary to practical application of good manners or etiquette.

Fuck That.

Our survival instinct is powerful, and is deeply rooted in the oldest part of the brain. It is always in the background scanning for predators and pitfalls.

So yes, there is totally a right time and a right place for being polite.  Maybe it’s asking your co-worker how their weekend was? Or saying please to the Barista taking your coffee order. Or engaging amiably with Sharon, your Lyft driver, about the Royal Wedding.

But there is also a right time and place to tell someone what time it is.

(or if it’s a serial killer…then run like hell).

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