11 Feb How to Be Polite
And why simple manners can transform your relationships
Most people don’t notice I’m polite, which is sort of the point. I don’t look polite. I am big and droopy and need a haircut. No soul would associate me with watercress sandwiches. Still, every year or so someone takes me aside and says, you actually are weirdly polite, aren’t you? And I always thrill. They noticed.
The complimenters don’t always formulate it so gently. For example, two years ago at the end of an arduous corporate project, slowly turning a thousand red squares in a spreadsheet to yellow, then green, my officemate turned to me and said: “I thought you were a terrible ass-kisser when we started working together.”
She paused and frowned. “But it actually helped get things done. It was a strategy.” (That is how an impolite person gives a compliment. Which I gladly accepted.)
She was surprised to see the stubborn power of politeness over time. Over time. That’s the thing. Mostly we talk about politeness in the moment. Please, thank you, no go ahead, I like your hat, cool shoes, you look nice today, please take my seat, sir, ma’am, etc. All good, but fleeting.
When I was in high school I used to read etiquette manuals. Emily Post and so forth. I found the manuals interesting and pretty funny. There was good stuff about how to write a note of condolence, and ridiculous stuff about how to behave on boats or at the White House.
I didn’t expect to apply my findings to my daily adolescent life. I was peripheral in high school — uncool but also untortured, voted “most scholarly” of my class, roughly equivalent to “least likely to have sex.” In high school no one noticed my politeness except for one kid. He yelled at me about it. “Why you always so polite, man?” he asked. “It’s weird.” I took it as praise and made a note to hide it further, to be more profane. Real politeness, I reasoned, was invisible. It adapted itself to the situation. Later, that same kid stole my cassette copy of Aqualung.
But no matter. What I found most appealing was the way that the practice of etiquette let you draw a protective circle around yourself and your emotions. By following the strictures in the book, you could drag yourself through a terrible situation and when it was all over, you could throw your white gloves in the dirty laundry hamper and move on with your life. I figured there was a big world out there and etiquette was going to come in handy along the way.
It didn’t at first. No one needs visiting cards in college (although I’m surprised that they haven’t made a comeback among drama students). And in my twenties I found that I could score points with my elders by showing up and speaking respectfully. But then, suddenly — it mattered. My ability to go to a party and speak to anyone about anything, to natter and ask questions, to turn the conversation relentlessly towards the speaker, meant that I was gathering huge amounts of information about other people.
Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”
Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.
A friend and I came up with a game called Raconteur. You pair up with another Raconteur at a party and talk to everyone you can. You score points by getting people to disclose something about their lives. If you dominate the conversation, you lose a point. The two raconteurs communicate using hand signals and keep a tally on a sheet of paper or in their minds. You’d think people would notice but they are so amused by the attention that the fact you’re playing Raconteur escapes their attention.
One way to be polite is by not touching people unless they specifically invite it. You’d be amazed at how often people screw this up; just search the Internet for “touch black woman hair” and marvel at the number of articles, posts, and guides. Here’s the New York Times journalist Jenna Wortham, in an interview at The Awl, on hair-touching:
I realize that it might sound like an overstatement to some people, but having someone touch me without my permission just fucks with my day and sense of privacy and personal space and sends me into a k-hole spiral of wondering what unconscious signal I may have given to indicate that it would be OK, even though I know there isn’t one.
I’ve read many narratives about white people just touching black hair and I read them with my mouth open. Not because of the racism, even. Just because as a polite person the idea of just reaching out and touching anyone’s hair makes my eye twitch. When would it be appropriate? If there was a very large poisonous spider in their hair. If I was doing a magic trick. Or after six or more years of marriage.
There are exceptions. I pat the heads of toddlers I’ve known for more than six months. If tiny children volunteer to sit on my lap or ask to ride around on my back while I make horse noises, I make eye contact with their parents first and then comply. Afterwards I might skritch their toddler heads a little. I am not opposed to tousling in certain defined and appropriate circumstances.
But a whole class of problems goes away from my life because I see people as having around them a two or three foot invisible buffer. If there is a stray hair on their jacket I ask them if I can pluck it from them. If they don’t want that, they’ll do it themselves. If their name is now Susan, it’s Susan. Whatever happens inside that buffer is entirely up to them. It has nothing to do with me.
Now, even though I prepped and studied etiquette books, I learned all this the regular way, by screwing it up terribly and having to send emails of apology the next day. The apology emails are pretty embarrassing to mention. They are excruciating to send. I get too drunk and hold forth in a stream of vulgarity. Or say something stupid. And then I wake up and sigh. “I realized,” I’ll write, “that I might have been a truly insufferable person last night.” I’ve never touched anyone’s hair, I don’t think. But of course I could. One thing about being polite is that you know that within you there lurks an incredibly impolite person.
Maybe twenty years ago I read a ’zine interview with a prostitute in which she put down her rules for her johns. Most of the rules were common sense about condoms, showing up on time, and so forth, but the one rule that stuck with me was, “don’t take a shit in my toilet!” It was in bold and underlined with exclamation points (it was a ’zine, remember).
Whenever I read about sex workers—which is often, because our culture is obsessed—this rule pops into my mind. I’ve never had reason to test it. But I like to think that, if my circumstances ever aligned so that I hired a sex worker, I would know how to handle myself in regard to this rule. For example, if it was necessary I’d make a quick stop at Starbucks before heading up to her apartment. And since I was already at Starbucks I should offer to bring coffee. “At Starbucks,” I’d text. “Want anything?” Per her request I’d buy a Caramel Flan Frappuccino® Light Blended Beverage and maybe a Chonga bagel. And yes, I know, it’s immoral for a woman in New York City to want a bagel from Starbucks. But who am I to judge?
That’s where the fantasy ends. It’s just a little rule nestled in my brain, filed under Prostitutes. There are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of similar just-in-case rules. What if I had to meet the mayor tomorrow? What if I had to go to an expensive restaurant? What if I needed to interview a homeless person for a story? Emily Post couldn’t cover everything, so I have to make do. I am, admittedly, a deeply anxious person. But also a polite one.
Politeness buys you time. It leaves doors open. I’ve met so many people whom, if I had trusted my first impressions, I would never have wanted to meet again. And yet — many of them are now great friends. I have only very rarely touched their hair.
I met a woman once. On our first date, we went to a nice bar with blue tables and, in the regular course of conversation, she told me at length about the removal of a dermoid teratoma from her ovaries. This is a cyst with teeth (not a metaphor). I had gone in expecting to flirt but instead I learned about the surgical removal of a fist-sized mutant mass of hair and teeth from her sexual parts. This killed the chemistry. I walked her home, told her I had a great time, and went home and looked up cysts on the Internet, always a nice end to an evening. We talked a little after that. I kept everything pleasant and brief. A year later I ran into her on the train and we got another drink. Much later I learned that she’d been having a very bad day in a very bad year. Now we are married with twins.
Sometimes I’ll get a call or email from someone five years after the last contact and I’ll think, oh right, I hated that person. But they would never have known, of course. Let’s see if I still hate them. Very often I find that I don’t. Or that I hated them for a dumb reason. Or that they were having a bad day. Or much more likely, that I had been having a bad day.
People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment. I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.
There is one other aspect of my politeness that I am reluctant to mention. But I will. I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy. For all of my irony I really do want to know about the process of hanging jewelry from celebrities. What does the jewelry feel like in your hand? What do the celebrities feel like in your hand? Which one is more smooth?
This is not a world where you can simply express love for other people, where you can praise them. Perhaps it should be. But it’s not. I’ve found that people will fear your enthusiasm and warmth, and wait to hear the price. Which is fair. We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out that we couldn’t afford it. A little distance buys everyone time.
Last week my wife came back from the playground. She told me that my two-year-old, three-foot-tall son, Abraham, walked up to a woman in a hijab and asked “What’s your name?” The woman told him her name. Then he put out his little hand and said, “Nice to meet you!” Everyone laughed, and he smiled. He shared with her his firmest handshake, like I taught him