Politenasty

August 14, 2014

Paul Ford has an essay up on his lifetime politeness strategy. I got to it via Daring Fireball which said of it “Such a lovely piece.” I’m slightly acquainted with Paul and like him (and often his writing). But I found this terrible. Now I have a history of, let us say, difficulties of various sorts with politeness and etiquette (for a recent example, see a not as recent as I recalled NewApps thread).

I will say upfront that my presentation to the world is not that of consistent politeness. In fact, people react to me and I react to them in a wide variety of ways. I say mean things sometimes out of respect, sometimes out of anger, and sometimes to have fun (both with and against the target). I have lots of virtues and know them, but it’s fair to say that I may be biased against politeness. I certainly have had a “thing” about etiquette for quite some time which partially comes from people lecturing me on the virtues of etiquette while being horrible to me. So, there’s probably a chip. Whether that chip guides me to truth or delusion is not for me to say. (But it’s truth. Always truth!)

Consider the lead in:

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.

I found this to be a bizarre and incoherent few sentences (and profoundly irritating). The sort-of point of…his politeness?…is not to be noticed? And the way it isn’t noticed is by his physical appearance? And what on earth does politeness have to do with watercress sandwiches? I suppose the sandwiches are meant to evoke a sort of British upper class stereotype but it’s so far off I’m not actually sure. And while appropriate dress is a way to be polite (wearing shorts and sandals to a black tie affair is almost certainly a big affront, however it was meant; contrariwise, wearing your posh togs at an informal event which makes the rest of the people feel put down is equi-rude).

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.)

Is politeness asskissing or vice versa? Is he being grudgingly praised for his politeness or his asskissing? Can we really generalise from the effects of one to the effects of the other?

And how polite is it to publicly identify someone as impolite, esp. to your own aggrandisement?

This makes me, at best, uneasy. I won’t say whether it’s polite but it seems cold and unkind. Consider:

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.

Uhm, ugh? He’s scoring points with “elders” and gathering information about people (without sharing information).

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.”

Again, the point seems to be manipulation and not for the sake of the relationship.

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.

So, he invented a game that he played at parties with the other party goers as targets. These people are then mocked as oblivious narcissists.

I do agree that not touching people, esp. their hair (esp. if you are white and they are black) is an obligation so fundamental that I’m confused that it is failed so often.

The last paragraphs are sort of nice, I guess. I like love. The kid’s schtick is cute. But given what led to all these I feel like I’m probably being manipulated. It is structurally sort of nice, as Paul “disclosed” something about himself. In several places, he speaks of his audience as either polite or potentially polite or otherwise great (“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”) and then these disclosures (indeed, the whole “I’m polite in a sneaky way” disclosure) puts us into the position of the Raconteur player. Unwillingly in that position, but in that position nevertheless.

Perhaps it isn’t polite to voice all this. I imagine Paul won’t read this (though I don’t mind if he does; I hope he takes it in the spirit of friendship intended) and I won’t draw his attention to my response. I do agree with some aspects of what he wrote (e.g., social space being helpful and valuable). I would not be surprised at all if my reaction is idiosyncratic and, by many measures, wrong.

I say these things because they are true, as well as to be polite.

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