the difference between polite canadians and polite british people is that when canadians are polite they’re actually genuinely being nice

but when the british are polite there’s a 97.5% chance that they’ve secretly insulted you but you just haven’t realised

New Yorkers Aren't Rude. You Are.

And I mean that title with the utmost of respect.

I’ve been a denizen of this fair[ly crappy] city my entire life, in one way or another.  I spent some time in LA during college, but don’t worry, I got over it.  The one thing, though, that I’ve consistently heard from around the US is that New York is a rude city.

This is, I feel, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what this place is.  

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Women are taught from the time that they’re girls to be pleasing, cheerful, and cute – so much so that men feel entitled to tell women they do not know that they should “smile” more, or that we should demonstrate boundless joy while doing domestic work (I’m looking at you, Kirk Cameron). Women are even expected to be fun-loving while running for public office, lest they’re painted as a ballbusting harpy or nags or bitches; there’s no lack of words used to mean “threatening woman”. Men in charge are bosses, women are bossy. Men are all-business, women are cold. Men are insightful, women are depressing.

And, when the default expectation for women’s personalities is sweetness and pep, it’s easy to mistake seriousness for nastiness. For women of color, almost any personality trait is labeled immediately as “angry”. Too many people don’t seem to understand that women – who are human beings – contain multitudes and are able to be serious, fun, grumpy, and loving within a short period of time (if not all at the same time).

It’s a mistake to confuse women’s solemnity with anger; it’s an even bigger one to disparage angry women. It not only teaches young girls that legitimate feelings are somehow “undesirable” – and that they should plaster a fake smile on anytime they’re hurt or angry – but it also diminishes the importance of anger and taking serious things seriously.

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.” Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.
—  Paul Ford, “How to Be Polite”
Why is it that interrupting someone in a quiet moment, wilfully oblivious to their verbal and physical cues, is considered friendly, but rebuffing such an interruption is considered rude? Interrupting is objectively worse than not wanting to be interrupted. We only get one life. Wasting someone’s time is the subtlest form of murder. So why do we let this bizarre inversion dictate so many of our interactions?
On politeness (this is not my field but probably worth saying anyway.)

Politeness isn’t an inherently good or bad thing. Impoliteness isn’t an inherently good or bad thing.  They’re both communicative tactics.

1) The politeness tactic is, “I’ll use these established culturally-specific modes of conversation. That make (default) people less uncomfortable about the method of my communication.”

In non-confrontational situations involving strangers, this is generally a way to get through things relatively easily. 

In confrontational situations, it makes things easier primarily for the person in power, the person who counts as more ‘default’. The comfort level of the less powerful is irrelevant to politeness, and the difficulty for cultural outsiders tends to be ignored.

And it’s a method, it doesn’t determine content. It’s possible to politely be a horrible human being, and many people who do this claim that their politeness excuses/justifies their “opinion”. Often about whether other people have a right to bodily autonomy.

2) The impoliteness tactic is, “I’ll disrupt these established culturally-specific modes of conversation.”

This can have a couple of different effects. One is to make people uncomfortable (particularly people who cling to politeness, probably because it benefits them). Another is, if multiple people are violating norms together, that’s a bonding thing. These can happen simultaneously, where more than two people are involved in the conversation.

Swearing is often a way to express impoliteness. It’s also often a way to express emotion - which is often itself considered impoliteness, because politeness is primarily about/for the comfort of the privileged.

So yeah, in non-confrontational situations, being randomly rude can be mean or nasty. But in confrontational situations it is often the best way to upset a power balance.

Which is why we can tell, the moment someone starts tone-policing or otherwise attempting to squish impoliteness or dismiss people for being impolite, that this person was previously comfortable, is now uncomfortable, and doesn’t like it and wants to shut everyone else up so they can go back to their nice polite privilege.

And the only people who can do that and still be considered polite? are the people in power.

Civility is not the same as affect

Having a civil conversation is about mutual listening and mutual respect.

Sometimes that gets conflated with affect — people act like the defining feature of respectful conversation is things like the position of your body, the volume of your voice, and whether you’re using polite words.

Sometimes things like that can be involved in what makes a conversation respectful, but they don’t define it.

The rules of politeness allow people to be dismissive and cruel. Similarly, it is possible to have a mutually respectful conversation that violates the rules of politeness.

For instance, it is often possible to have a mutually respectful conversation with raised voices and cuss words. It is also often possible to use a lot of I-statements and gentle-sounding language to have a conversation that is fundamentally disrespectful and cruel.

Conflating affect with respect ends up drowning out a lot of voices, and privileging people who are good at manipulating the rules of politeness.

(Affect matters, and it’s ok if some kinds of affect are dealbreaking for you in terms of your ability to have conversations with someone. I’m not saying that everything should be acceptable to everyone. All I’m saying is that affecting politeness is not the same as treating someone respectfully.)

tl;dr Body language, tone of voice, and affect can be part of what makes a conversation civil and mutually respectful, but they don’t define it.