It’s become something of a truism — in both social justice circles and the larger society — to say that politeness is outmoded. In fact, many people view politeness as a tool of oppression, as though it has no utility except to shame people angry at their oppression into compliance: You need to be more polite, the privileged say. Otherwise, I won’t listen to you.
I have experienced this tactic. To me, this is an absolute misuse of the very notion of politeness. It should never be used as a way to shut people up. To the contrary: politeness, when used properly, enables people to feel safe enough to speak.
Of course, politeness has its limits. If someone physically attacks me, I’m not going to be polite while fighting for my life. If someone attempts to derail an argument by telling me that I need to be more polite — and has no interest in hearing me out no matter how well-spoken I am — I can be blunt about calling that out. There are many times and places in which being polite is out of the question. And because of those times and places, politeness has gotten a bad name.
I was raised in an era in which social forms were far more important than they are now. Our parents and teachers drilled into us the need to say please, thank you, and you’re welcome; to say excuse me if you had to pass in front of someone; to hold the door for the next person. But for us, it wasn’t an empty social form or an expression of deference. To the contrary: it was a sign of respect.
Although I can be very, very blunt, I can also be polite to a fault. I am amazed at the ways in which all those long-ago lessons live in me — the ways in which I instinctively go to them as I walk through my life. Politeness still lives in my bones, no matter how blunt I may otherwise be.
I have been calling upon politeness early and often these days as I distribute bag lunches to people living in the park, many of whom are disabled. Because they experience so little politeness at the hands of other people, I find it very, very important to exercise politeness when talking with people who have no homes. These people, whether disabled or not, are ignored, spat on, told to get a job, and chased out of public spaces. So when I talk to people, I am unfailingly courteous.
When I approach people who are sleeping, I take care to not wake them up. A lot of people can’t sleep during the night — because sleeping outdoors is illegal at night in Santa Cruz — so they sleep during the day. If I see people sleeping, I’ll walk up to them very softly and leave a bag of food at their feet, or behind them, or on top of their carts. But occasionally, my presence startles people and they wake up. One person became quite hostile. My response is always polite: I’m sorry that I disturbed your rest. I’ll just leave your lunch here for you.
If a person is awake, I will say May I offer you some food? If I have to step over a person’s camp in order to reach that person, I will ask whether it is all right for me to step on a blanket or a tarp.
If someone says thank you to me, I always say, you’re very welcome.
To my mind, this is no empty social form. To the contrary, it is a form of social justice. I am making right a wrong. I am overturning the cultural imperative to look down on disabled people, to look down on people living in poverty, to see them as unworthy of basic human decency. I am letting people know that they deserve my courtesy and my respect.
And people are almost always polite to me in return. It is rare that a person doesn’t treat me with courtesy. Very, very rare. People introduce themselves and ask my name. They ask after how I’m doing. They offer to help distribute food to their friends. They say God bless. I see less and less of this kind of courtesy among people with a great deal more. I find it reassuring wherever I meet it.
Kindness flows through these social forms. Far from being an exercise in compliance and silencing, they are an experience of connection and being seen.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg