Politeness is complicated.

Politeness is a way to show respect and decency, empathy, even— but it can also be a place to hide. It’s polite to RSVP. It’s polite to let someone know if you’re running late. To offer them a drink when they come to your house. To anticipate someone’s wants and needs and make an effort to meet them. If you grew up in a WASP-tinged culture, it’s also polite to avoid certain topics that feel uncomfortable— money, religion, politics. Race. One of these forms of politeness encourages connection and shared humanity. The other undermines it. How can we navigate the competing imperatives of respecting people’s boundaries around comfort and challenging harmful social structures? How can we create respect and comfort while also being willing to be uncomfortable when it’s needed? We can start by recognizing that there is the potential for harm in silence just as there is in being vocal. Refusal to discuss a topic can perpetuate inequity, misunderstanding, false assumptions, and oppression. Once you see these potential sequelae, you have to ask: Is comfort (mine or yours) in the moment worth it? And if not, how can I breech the walls of politeness without blowing up my relationships, my job, my family?

The dark side of politeness come up in conversations about physical safety, too. Books like The Gift of Fear (love it or hate it) point out that women, in particular, may not remove themselves from dangerous situations for fear of being perceived as rude. That’s understandable, given the way people and women in particular are judged, but it’s fucked up. Women are victimized because they are afraid a stranger will be offended if they hold their boundaries. This throws into sharp relief a distinction that will affect politeness more broadly: are you prioritizing comfort over safety? Yours or someone else’s, now or in the future? How do you know? What do you do about it? When is acting right? When is not acting right? Gah!

There isn’t a simple answer about any of this. Your response to a situation will depend on lots of things– What is your relationship to the person? What is “in play” around the politeness– is it minor (annoyance) or major (trauma)? What is the context of the interaction? How much energy do you have? What’s your plan B?

All this is to say, I don’t know. But it’s worth thinking about it. What do you think?

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