Etiquette is a blunt instrument

I gave a talk last night, and I was asked three questions. More than that, really, but three that I want to focus on. They were:

1. Has anyone told you that you look like a female Spock?
2. Can you explain why you don’t want to have children?
3. Are you going on a book tour?

The first two questions are, I think most people would agree, distinctly rude. The rest of the audience certainly seemed to think so, squirming in their seats and muttering, and the poor organizer damn nearly fell over herself apologizing for whoever asked the first one. (I don’t know who asked it. When I give talks to private groups, I’ll usually have people write questions on index cards and pass them up to me after I speak, because I’ve found that little bit of anonymity makes things easier. After I’ve answered the questions on cards, folks feel emboldened enough to raise their hands.) We don’t evaluate women’s appearance to their faces, and we certainly don’t tell them they look like aliens. We also don’t question the reproductive choices of others. The book-tour question, on the other hand, is exactly the sort of intelligent, other-focused followup question that is the hallmark of civil conversation.

The first two questions delighted me beyond all measure, and the third made me miserable.

Which finally gave me the “aha” I’ve been struggling toward for some time now: that etiquette is a blunt instrument. What is hurtful is not always rude, and what is rude is not always hurtful.

I was massively entertained by the Spock question (which wouldn’t have been out of place at a science fiction convention, like the one I’m speaking at next month, but this was a Jewish women’s organization). Yeah, lady, I DO know I look like Spock’s little sister. (Or big sister, depending on which Spock you mean.) If I was bothered by that, I wouldn’t have chosen a bob haircut with short bangs to offset my narrow eyes, high cheekbones, and dramatic eyebrows. I’m a big Trekkie and Spock was probably my first crush as a pre-teen. Seriously, who doesn’t think Spock was hot? I’m only sorry that I didn’t keep the card to put on my refrigerator. Inappropriate or not, the question struck me as funny, flattering, and accurate.

The second question, too, was okay by me. It was asked in an honest fashion, not like “OMG you don’t want babeez what is WRONG with you?!” The woman just wanted to understand a state of mind that wasn’t fathomable to her. It’s still way the hell too personal a question to ask anyone but a close friend, but I’m comfortable with my choice, and I don’t mind discussing it. In fact, I find it both philosophically and scientifically interesting. Is it even possible to describe lack of desire? And why would a person, from an evolutionary point of view, fail to want to reproduce? (My guess is that because birth control is a relatively new invention, evolutionarily speaking, there’s no pressure to want children per se. There’s only pressure to be competent enough to raise them if and when they appear.) I’m happy to open up my life in order to help moms and non-moms understand each other better.

That book-tour question, though–God, do I hate getting asked that. No, I’m not doing a tour. My publishers don’t think it makes sense for me to have one, and while I could put a tour together myself, I don’t have the temporal, financial, or organizational resources to do so. But it makes me feel like I’m not a real writer. Real writers go on tour. Real writers go on “Oprah.” Don’t remind me. Don’t even tell me what you hope for me. Yes, I think I’d be great on “The Colbert Report” too. You know him? Want to put in a good word? I’m skinlessly sensitive at the moment to anything having to do with the discrepancy between my dreams of greatness and the adequate but not stellar present.

But “Are you going on a book tour?”, much as I hate it, is still a reasonable and polite question to ask. So suck it, Miss Conduct. It may be hurtful but it isn’t rude.

Obviously, there is a correlation between hurtful and rude; the rules of polite behavior represent an attempt to cut out that which would be hurtful to most people most of the time. But everyone has their own idiosyncratic vulnerabilities and can be hurt by behaviors entirely within the bounds of etiquette. And everyone, too, has particular areas of great tolerance for particular sorts of rude behaviors. Perhaps you don’t mind picking up the check, and find your freeloading friend’s habit of sneaking off to the men’s room when the tab comes to be hilariously transparent, a bit of entertainment well worth the price. Perhaps you’re a freewheeling sort of host or hostess who really doesn’t care if people RSVP or show up on time. Personal questions or even frank assessments of my appearance have never bothered me. I suppose it’s a combination of the lack of inhibition and objectivity about the physical self that characterizes so many theater people. We all have a different set of buttons, and some of them are on a hair trigger and some are missing entirely.

This distinction is something, I realize, that I’ve struggled to articulate in my columns. I sometimes get letters from people who are hurt by behaviors that are not rude. Often, the LWs (letter-writers) want me to condemn the people who are behaving in a hurtful way. But I can’t do that, because those people are not actually doing something wrong. I can acknowledge the hurt, that’s for sure. Even when I think someone is really off base, they still have a right to their feelings. And if the relationship is a close one, I can suggest ways of talking about the bothersome behavior. We have the right to expect our friends and family to honor our quirks, within reason. But we’ll have a better chance of getting them to do so if we realize that this is what we are asking–their indulgence for our quirks. We aren’t scolding them for not adhering to the rules of etiquette if they, in fact, are.

Similarly, I’ve occasionally gotten letters from people upset about a breach of etiquette, yet who do not seem to be, in fact, hurt at all. Given how very many battles there are to fight in this world, fighting for abstract principles of manners that you don’t fundamentally care about strikes me as a waste of time. The most controversial version of this was my response to a man who disapproved of his wife’s habit of talking on the phone during dinner. He disapproved of it. He expressed no hurt about her neglect, nor any particular desire to talk to her himself. He merely seemed offended that she was breaking a rule of etiquette.

So I told him, in essence, to get over it. Just as we expect more than etiquette strictly demands from those whom we love, we should be willing to accept less than etiquette demands if there are no emotions at stake. That’s how it works with those whom we love and who love us: we learn which buttons to avoid and which ones we can happily pound away on all day.

And it’s absolutely vital to sanity to realize that when you step out of your circle of loved ones, you no longer have the right to that kind of customized treatment. People will say things that are hurtful to you, and if those things are within the common bounds of civility we’ve defined as a society, you cowboy up and answer them politely.

We think of etiquette as refined; we associate etiquette with fragile glassware, sensitive palates, subtle locutions. But etiquette, however delicate its trappings, is a blunt instrument.

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