I did an e-mail interview last week in which I was asked “to come up with a couple situations, in your experience, that don’t necessarily require the most polite response. It would also be great if you could comment on how to handle them … This small piece is going within a larger piece about etiquette, so we wanted to highlight the situations where you shouldn’t allow yourself to be walked all over.”
There was more to it than that, but this was the basic idea. Which I found a frustrating question, because I think that’s a misreading of what “politeness” is. Here’s what I wrote in response:
Politeness is always important, but you can assert yourself while being civil and kind about it. Some people think that “good manners” means being terribly euphemistic and fancy all the time, but it really doesn’t. A well-mannered person is a person who can change her style to suit the occasion. Here are some times when direct communication is the best:
1. When you are in charge. When you are the boss (whether at work, hosting a party, or running a community event), act like it. This doesn’t mean barking commands — but it does mean giving clear directives and feedback. You aren’t being “polite” by making other people read your mind or reassure you that you’re really in control.
2. When “subtle hints don’t work.” As an advice columnist, I am constantly amazed by the number of people who write to me about clueless co-workers, spouses, roommates, or neighbors, whose behavior drives the Letter Writer righteously batty, and who don’t pick up on “hints” to change.
If hinting doesn’t work, stop hinting! There’s nothing wrong with asking a co-worker not to microwave broccoli because the smell bothers you; or telling your spouse that silly as it may be, Valentine’s Day is important to you, so get some game next year; or asking a roommate not to use the last of your milk.
3. When the answer is “No.” A “no” can be final and commanding (to a pushy stranger at a bar) or sweet and regretful (to a friend who wants you to volunteer yet again to organize the school auction), but when “No” is the answer you need to give, give it. Apologize only if necessary, and never offer excuses.
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