Monday, April 26, 2010

POLITENESS AND SMALL TALK

OESTERHOUDT STRIKES

I am a very polite person. Even when it makes sense not to be polite, I am polite. It is almost reflexive for me to be polite. In my early life, I learned always to be polite. My mother always said: "Be polite! Say thank you! Do not ask for more!" My mother had another name for this institutionalized politeness: "Good manners."

I did not have a choice. I had to be polite. On the other hand, I grew up in suburban Connecticut. People were not out to get me; in fact, most people were extremely nice. Why not be polite to nice people? They deserved it; they meant me no harm. I didn't mind being polite. In the process, I learned to respect everyone I met. They never hurt me, so it was only fair for me respect them.

But things changed as I got older. Once I graduated from college and started living in the commercial world, I quickly found that not everyone was as nice as they were in my Connecticut childhood. To the contrary, I discovered that most people were dishonest scoundrels who would sooner backstab you than help you up if you slipped on a banana peel. In fact, they would probably even laugh if they saw you fall. Even if they weren't malicious, I found most people flaky and unreliable. If someone told me they "would call me again some time," in almost every case they did not.

Yet I was always polite with these people. I shouldn't have been, but I was. After all, it was reflexive. It was a vestige from my idyllic childhood. I smiled with them, said thank you, made small talk. I even did favors for some. Then I received nothing in return. Many even took advantage of my politeness and gained from it.

Slowly, I realized that it made no sense to be polite all the time. Most people exploited it. And almost no one appreciated it. In fact, it seemed that impolite people succeeded much more frequently than polite people. Impolite people ran right over the polite people and got away with everything. What good did smiling and thanking do? Not much.

Still, I was determined not to become just another impolite ogre on the New York streets. I simply learned to be more wary about according respect to everyone I met. I adopted a new rule: Be polite with exceptions. I used my intuition about whether someone deserved my respect. I tried to sense whether someone was worth respecting, or whether they were just another self-interested shark in the water. Sometimes it was obvious to me that someone was a self-interested shark. So I wasn't polite to them. They had nothing ethically in common with me. So there was no need to be polite. Why be polite with someone who would just as soon leave you dead in a gutter? That is just stupid--and servile, too.

I developed a real suspicion toward new acquaintances. Eventually, I could detect immediately whether someone was a complete selfish asshole or whether they were worth further emotional investment. In some settings, I was polite no matter what, as when I interacted with sales staff and other pathetic commercial pawns who obviously meant me no harm. But in all other settings, I kept my guard.

Recently, for instance, I walked back into my building after taking my dog for a stroll. I got on the elevator. A moment later, a very smily, well-dressed woman with a leather portfolio and an expensive cell phone joined me, along with some bewildered looking adolescent who wore his hat backwards. She was clearly a real estate agent showing apartments to this little punk, who probably had just graduated from college and whose dad was definitely paying the rent.

As soon as the doors closed, this insufferable woman opened her mouth. "What a cute little dog! What's his name? What's the breed? This is a nice building, isn't it? The elevator is very nice. It is very convenient. The lighting is good. BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH."

I was about ready to vomit. I couldn't help but notice the Cartier bracelet on the agent's wrist as she spewed forth her endless, dishonest pleasantries. I knew instantly that she was just talking to keep things on an even keel with her client. After all, no one likes awkward silence. So she filled the air with condescending blather. "It's a wonderful building! You like it here, don't you? It's such a great location, isn't it? There's a grocery store right downstairs, you know," she told me, as if I didn't know there was a grocery store in my own goddamn neighborhood.

"Yes, there sure is," I said, without a smile. I consciously said it impolitely. "And my dog is a she."

"Oh, wonderful," she responded without missing a beat; and without really registering what I said. God forbid any silence should intervene to make her client feel uncomfortable. For his part, the youth-soaked client just stood there staring at the floor indicator as the elevator rose. He was wearing shower shoes, shorts and looked like a smug, boring-ass moron. On weekdays, he probably put on a suit and shlepped to some skyscraper to type emails for one of his dad's friends. Worse, he probably even felt important for it. I could see it immediately.

Thankfully, client and professional stepped off the elevator two floors below mine. They went about their business. The agent kept chatting the whole time. The client bumbled along a step or two behind. He was probably thinking about going out later that night. She mentioned something about a trash compactor as they faded from earshot.

I thought about how impolite I had been with this woman. It didn't bother me at all. Why should I have been polite to her? What did she mean to me? Would she have helped me with anything? And why was she even talking to me in the first place? To provide confirmation for her silence-destroying questions? She was using me as an instrument to avoid awkwardness with her client and talking to me as if I knew nothing about my own building. I knew what she was trying to do. She was trying to seal the deal with this little brat by appearing "friendly" and glib with everyone she encountered along the way. I was just a bump along the road to her commission. That's what bothered me.

Why should I have respected this woman? Why should I have been polite? I do not award politeness to people in situations like this. I do not respect people who ingratiate in order to fill their own pockets. So I do not smile or act nice. Now, that does not mean I am an impolite person. Quite the contrary; it simply means I am judicious with my natural politeness. It also means that I resort to impoliteness with people who deserve to be treated impolitely. Don't be fooled: They are out there. And it is actually worse to treat them politely.

I have been walked over too often for being polite. That is why I now know when to be polite, and when not to be. Believe it or not, it is undignified--and very weak--to invariably be polite with everyone you meet. On the whole, people don't deserve it. So you need to learn when it works to be polite, and when it doesn't.

2 comments:

MaxThrust said...

I share the same ingrained overly nice-nice reflex. Now when I meet a stranger, I'm still quite cordial initially, but what has changed a little is I'm able to adjust my attitude as I gain more knowledge about the interaction. Sometimes I still catch myself playing the nice-nice script, when it doesn't serve me, and it pisses me off.

Timoteo said...

There are enough overtly rude people in the world--so when I encounter someone who is being "pleasant," even if I know it's not sincere, I see no harm in playing that game.

When the politeness is masking a condescending or manipulative attitude is when, for me, it should not be returned in kind.