Direct communication

April 7th, 2011

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.

3 Responses to “Direct communication”

  1. Stephanie on April 7, 2011 9:36 am

    I don’t know that I’ve commented before, but this is very related to something that’s been rolling around in my mind for a bit.

    I agree with what you’ve said for the situations described – especially number 3. From my experience, it’s hard to say ‘no’ to people, especially without offering excuses as to why. But I’m curious about situations where somebody is being straight up mean/hurtful/ignorant to you.

    For example, I’m gay, and have been told while in public with my girlfriend, by strangers, that I am a bad influence on the children around me. Usually this is in the “politest” way possible – as though surely if I had realized children were around I wouldn’t have held hands with the person I love, because obviously they’ll catch my horrible gay disease. To me this is a situation that doesn’t necessarily require the most polite response. I don’t know what response is a good one – in theory I’d have a really sharp comeback or a steely glare. In reality, I just stare at them, shocked that somebody would say that to a complete stranger (or anybody, really) followed by something very suave along the lines of “Um, OK…” and then not changing my actions at all. Anyway, my own awkwardness aside, in a situation like this, are good manners truly necessary?

  2. Robin on April 7, 2011 7:07 pm

    Stephanie, I think that “I’m afraid that’s your problem, not mine/ours,” delivered in a calm, authoritative tone — as though someone had criticized you for wearing plaid in public because OMG think of the children, those innocent eyes exposed to PLAID — ought to accomplish whatever goals you are seeking.

    As a larger issue, though, I’m putting this on my blog to see what people think about the necessity of politeness.

  3. Shulamuth on April 7, 2011 9:36 pm

    I always intend to say “I am providing a good influence, by not rudely making comments about the personal affairs of others”, but often end up sputtering myself.

    There is also the whole “oh, silly me, I hadn’t thought! Well, I’ll just give up my relationship with the woman I love and entirely change my life.” routine, but I fear some of the people making these comments would think that was a good thing.

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