A few years ago Lynne Truss published a book called Talk to the Hand. Coming on the heels of her smash hit, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, this book was intended as an educated rant about the appalling rudeness of contemporary Western cultures. In the course of her rant she necessarily struggled with the reasons for what has befallen us in the space of only a generation or two. Truss characteristically affixes a sharp point to her rants and surrounds them with what for lack of a better term might be called knowledge. In short, she produces stilettos of informed social criticism and, with the best of good, rollicking humor, sticks them in very hard.
Ms. Truss is British, writes in British English, and takes most of her examples from her own surroundings. But little of what she has to say does not apply equally or even more acutely to the United States. I, for one, enjoy a good rant when I happen to agree with its general perspective, as I do with this one (as well as with the earlier one about the rudeness inherent in grammatical and punctuational illiteracy). But I particularly enjoy one when I not only find encouragement and good company in venting my own frustrations, but actually learn something in the process and am prodded to thinker further about it.
To give an example of what I mean by a rant surrounded by knowledge, Ms. Truss engages inter alia in a succinct dissection of where the concept of politeness, along with etiquette and manners, came from, and why. Most of us take such abstract concepts as politeness, as well as sincerity, authenticity, honor, trust, generosity and so forth, for granted, thinking that they have always meant what they mean to us today. That is because, naturally enough, few people delve seriously into social history, or even know what it is. Were they to do so, they would discover that our conceptual universe is Einsteinian, by which I mean to say in general flux. Meanings move relatively among kindred concepts over time, and do so variously in different places and linguistic environments. The current issue of The American Interest contains two review essays that ponder the concepts of sincerity and happiness; both books under review use social history to one extent or another to do so. They are most enlightening, and they are of a kind with what Ms. Truss tries to do for politeness.
If you want the full treatment, read Talk to the Hand. But a bare-bones summary of her observation on this point can be contained in a single intriguing question: Are the conventions of politeness meant to bring us closer to others, or to keep them at a distance?
I would like to propose at this point that you go get a comforting beverage of your choice, sit and ponder the question as you sip, and come back to this text in an hour or so. But I know very few of you will do that, so here’s the answer: both.
The conventions of being polite, and their specific applications in social etiquette in both speech and table manners, work to assure all concerned that strangers are not necessarily threats. Within families and tribes there are many means for producing such reassurance. But when, in early modern times, rigid medieval “estates” or class divisions began to soften, and people began to move about more and thus to experience face-to-face contact more regularly with those to whom they were in no way related, other means beyond an old-fashioned handshake had to be devised to guarantee basic social comity. That’s where templates concerning manners and politeness and, for that matter, sincerity in their modern forms come from.
At the same time, like a good fence with gates that swing both ways, these conventions protect us from unwanted invasions of intimacy. If we manage these conventions of politeness properly, we tell any given stranger that there are bonds between us, but that there are also limits. That balance enables us to get along in a civilized manner, preventing both the perpetual Hobbesian war of all against all as well as the chaos that would ensue from everyone boffing each other all the day long. What Ms. Truss is on about is the decay of competence and concern in managing these conventions, which has led to the coarsening of our societies, to a life rendered nastier and more brutish, if not also shorter. Why does she think this is happening?
Again, to get the full flavor of her answer you should read the book. But for now know that she spends ink examining the impact of both modern media culture and the cybernetic revolution on our habits of politeness. If I may interpret her a bit, the main argument is that a headlong egalitarianism has gone very far in dissolving the social glue that keeps us a community, and has abetted the erosion of social authority at all levels. Everyone has become, for better or usually for worse, excessively inner-directed, to use David Reisman’s old “lonely crowd” term. We thus find ourselves in a no-fault world wherein any inkling of shame is inverted into contempt aimed toward the source of the inkling. With each person being the sole judge of his or her own worth, no one has a right to criticize or counsel. Here is how Ms. Truss puts it:
Shamelessness is not only a highly regarded modern attribute, but the sine qua non of most successful TV and entertainment formats, which compete to push shamelessness to ever further limits.
As to the cybernetic revolution, her point is that the screen-bound life is not good training for actual human relationships. So self-absorbed and asocial have many people become that they do not recognize the existence of others if those people are not at the moment instrumentally useful to them. Acting as though other people sharing the same space with you aren’t really there is the metaphorical equivalent of littering. People toss the audible half of a cell phone conversation out in an elevator or on a bus, for example, as if no one else exists. Again, Ms. Truss:
We edit the world; we select for menus; we pick and choose; our social “group” focuses on us and disintegrates without us. This makes it rather confusing for us when we step outdoors and discover that other people’s behaviour can’t be deleted with a simple one-stroke command or dragged to the trash icon.
So what do we do when we can’t have our way? We simply pretend that no one else is there, and so drag them into the trash icon anyway.
I think Ms. Truss is really onto something here, but I want now to take the subject into a direction she does not really follow. (Perhaps she will do so in her next book.) And that is while the rise of shamelessness and rudeness are much to be regretted, so is the subsequent rise of fake shame and especially fake politeness.
Fake shame is on abundant display these days. I recently received a semi-mass mail letter from a company that is a contractor to my healthcare provider. The letter informed me that some claim someone in my family had made within the past three years had been coded (by someone or other) in such a way as to suggest a workplace mishap. A file number was created for us from this coding, and the letter asked me to fill in details of any work-related accident that resulted in an insurance claim. The purpose of all this was clear enough: If somebody else’s insurance could be made to pay for the claim, that would save my healthcare provider money. So far, so good.
But I could not remember for sure such an episode, so I called this contractor as invited and asked what claim their file number referred to. The fellow on the other end of the line just repeated the generic information in the letter, without offering any of the specifics I requested. I pressed him, saying, in effect, “I’m willing to help you by filling our your form, but first I have to know what we’re talking about here.” Finally he confessed that he did not know and could not know because HIPPA privacy regulations prevented the contractor from gaining access to the relevant information. My reaction, in essence, was “what a strange business you’re in.” With this he expressed effusive artificial contrition, claiming very, very improbably that he was very, very sorry about something over which he had effectively no control in the first place.
I felt sorry for the guy, since he was obviously in an awkward position almost by definition. He had been made a designated question answerer for questions he could not possibly answer; Franz Kafka, eat your heart out. At the same time, I knew his expressions of contrition weren’t sincere. He was just putting me on as a means of stop-gap defense, and I’m sure I wasn’t the first and have not been the last to get this treatment. I don’t like being put on, but it really wasn’t his fault, so I ended the conversation quickly and tossed the form into recycling.
Fake politeness bothers me a whole lot more, however, than fake shame. It basically says, look, I know we at this business are supposed to be polite because it’ll give us a competitive advantage at a time when so many people are irritated about how rude people have become. So we will act polite even if we have to force ourselves—which is of course not the same as actually being polite. We will even train our staff in how to act politely. We will norm and drill the entire exercise, too, with the result, most of the time, that efforts to be polite come across as insincere, trivialized routinizations that ooze bad faith.
This is downright annoying. I would much rather have someone in a business setting be cold and efficient toward me rather than be artificially bubbly, buoyant and oh-so-friendly while they screw up some simple clerical task. The reason is that I hold friendship and politeness dear, even dearer than clerical competence, because the former must be earned and the latter, as already indicated, has a serious social history not to be toyed with.
That’s also why I cringe at the use of the noun “friend” as a verb, as in “to friend” someone on a social media platform, most often someone whom the would-be “friender” (and I do apologize for that) has never even actually met. It is hard to think of a more banalizing act within the general framework of interpersonal relations.
It is for a similar reason that I am made uncomfortable when young people, especially young women, introduce themselves to me using only their first name, whether on the telephone in some clerk-like capacity or as wait-staff in a restaurant, say. This is supposed to convey friendliness and informality, and it is very American (far more so than it is yet British, but they’re catching up with us, if you believe Ms. Truss). But I don’t like it: Formalities exist for a reason, after all, just as do the closely related conventions of politeness. The first-name-only norm, which was almost universally considered impolite in this country only a few decades ago, forces me to be rude, by my own lights, in addressing random young women by their first names. It suggests a potential intimacy I find unseemly and thus implicitly discounts a woman’s dignity. But there’s nothing I can do about it anymore. We have reached the stage where asking for a family name in order to avoid this awkwardness is considered more intrusive than using a first name. (See: Social customs and the concepts that undergird them do change.)
No doubt there are more important things to worry about these days. But this problem of false politeness seems to be getting worse at every turn. The bank branch I use near my office, mainly to deposit checks, furnishes a case in point. Over the years I have gradually gotten to know a few of the tellers, so we have earned together the right to a certain casual friendliness on either side of the tellers’ partition. But this is, as I say, something we have earned over time. When I walked into the bank a few weeks ago there was a new employee, a young woman, standing strategically about ten feet inside the door, and her apparent assignment was to greet with a smile and an over-the-top friendly “hello, there” everyone who walked into the bank. This astonished me. It seemed impossible that the bank would assign someone a task like this, as though this salaried employee had nothing better to do than to spend her morning faking friendliness toward total strangers. The whole situation was ambiently insulting, but also so confusing that I wasn’t quite sure who was being insulted and who was doing the insulting. Was she insulting me, or was I put in the position of insulting her by failing to reciprocate her plainly insincere welcome?
Then it got worse: Just the other day, when I went to make a deposit, a teller whom I had never before seen tried to talk me up about my weekend, about the shirt I was wearing, my spectacle frames, and more besides. The right to small talk has its limits. It is certainly within the conventions of politeness to begin a volley of small talk, but it is outside those conventions to insist on making an instantaneous intimate out of a customer upon whom one has never before laid eyes.
I find this sort of thing cloying precisely because it banalizes something precious to civilization. It’s why Groucho Marx’s famous quip, which concludes that if you can fake sincerity and integrity you’ve got it made, is profound as well as funny. The corporate bureaucratization of politeness is, if anything, even worse than quotidian rudeness. Indeed, it constitutes its own special, noxious postmodern form of rudeness: It is rudeness bathed in patronizing smarm. It gets people to, in effect, act like politeness machines in which the appearance of emotion displaces every last ounce of the real thing. Thank heaven the employees at the Maryland MVA have not been affected yet; so far, anyway, their most sincere surliness remains sacrosanct.
And if it’s bad in face-to-face encounters, it is positively horrid in actual machines, such as voicemail recordings, where the anonymity inherent to the relationship completely debases the emotions, by definition interpersonal, being spilled out electronically all over the place. The fact that assaults of pre-recorded faux politeness—“Your call is very important to us”, “. . . valued customer” and all the rest of the standard crap—usually come upon us when we are “on hold”, being treated as a doormat of one kind or another, just makes them all the more maddening. Or is it just me? Are there sentient human beings who are really so lonely and longing for a kind word that they’ll take heart in good tidings from a machine?! It can’t be. At any rate, it mustn’t be.
I take great pains not to act like a curmudgeon. My wife insists upon it, even should I forget. But sometimes I just can’t help myself; this is perhaps one of those times. Nonetheless, I don’t regret for an instance the fact that my wife and I have tried to teach our three children not to be rude. I sincerely (for real) hope that we have also taught them never to be insincerely polite.