Does raising a kidlet in the #MeToo era have any other parents questioning the value of politeness? Because it’s been on my well-mannered mind a lot.
I started noticing it when I felt like I had to shield my son, Harvey, from overzealous admirers who wanted physical contact when he didn’t, and I wondered if our well-meaning insistence on hugs and kisses might be blurring the lines of consent for our young’uns.
It occurred to me that making Harvey politely endure unwanted closeness wasn’t just disrespectful to him but a disservice, too. That’s no way to teach him what it looks like to respect our bodies enough to firmly set a boundary, or what it looks like to respect someone else’s.
I think that’s when I started splitting hairs between what is polite and what is respectful behavior. On the surface, politeness is a charming construct that when employed can facilitate graceful and predictable social interactions.
Here’s why: Politeness prioritizes grace over respect. And while I don’t love being awkward (despite my vast experience), I’m more comfortable with it than I am with blatant disrespect for the sake of social ease.
At least in theory. In practice, I’m finding it harder to speak up than I thought.
For example, politeness, for me, has been shrugging off those minor uncomfortable moments when someone says something off color or too flirtatious.
A life of being different has taught me how to let that stuff roll like water off a duck’s back, so “it’s no biggie,” I’ve told myself when I’ve chosen not to disrupt the flow of conversation or jeopardize my reputation as someone who can take a joke.
But then a friend of mine was called out for stepping over the line. It was awkward … and it was right. My sense about him, though, is that he’s a well-intentioned dude — albeit out of touch, sometimes woefully out of touch.
After he got called out, I began to regret the opportunities I had to speak up when he made those occasionally too flirtatious jokes.
Whether that would have changed his future interactions or not, I think my training in politeness led me astray from having the most honest and respectful interactions possible.
But given the number of us who have experienced these moments of discomfort big and small, the corresponding likelihood is that we also know someone who’s done the damage — intentionally or not.
And, to be fair, since none of us are perfect, there’s good reason to believe that we, too, have been accidentally offensive in some way or another, but for someone else’s politeness we just may not have known.
So, tough, awkward, uncomfortable or all of the above — I’m going to do what I hope others will do with me, and that’s tell folks as directly, privately and immediately as possible that they’ve crossed a line.
I’m ditching politeness not so I can be less sensitive or respectful, but so I can try to be more so.
Marina Gomberg is a communications professional and lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey. You can reach Marina at firstname.lastname@example.org.