Against Politeness

For an Englishman in New York, happiness is never having to say you're sorry

Whenever friends from England visit me in New York, I get embarrassed—in a very English, shameful, and snobby way, I must admit—by their unnecessary politeness and bumbling indirectness in stores, delis, and cabs. Truss refuses to offer a manners guide, saying they're anachronistic. But this seems to be precisely their appeal in a permissive culture exhausted by informality— an interesting diagnosis that demands more time than Truss gives it. So I'll attempt my own quick (anti-)manners guide here.

If there's a counter between you and your interlocutor, there's no need to pussyfoot around. Just say—and the less clearly the better—"A cheese roll" or "Just this banana." When you turn away with your goods, see how thrilling the omission of the P-word feels. The deli man doesn't need to be patronized with politeness, and neither do you. And in cabs: Don't expect the driver to acknowledge the destination you've just given him, and definitely don't repeat it in a clearer voice. This is the worst thing you could do and a sign of terrible weakness. In the silence, you must simply trust that you've been heard. And try leaving a gap where a word would paper over a tiny disaster. Imagine spilling a drink at a bar and not saying "oops" or even "sorry"; instead just sit there while the bartender silently, non-judgmentally, pours you another. There's a beautiful kind of camaraderie that comes with clipped requests, manly restraint with routine politeness words, and quiet, intuitive exchanges.

Speaking of the virtues of silence, I'm reminded of a Wittgenstein anecdote. It's not exactly that civility with strangers can't be spoken of and must be passed over in silence. But a sure way to neuter a generous gesture is to offer it in the first place, and then to overdo the thanks. In his biography of Wittgenstein, The Duty of Genius, Ray Monk records an incident in 1945 when the great Austrian philosopher of language and its limits was visiting a vicar in Swansea. From the kitchen, the vicar's fussy wife called out: "Would you like tea, Mr. Wittgenstein?" along with a whole slew of alternatives—a typical British nervousness. The vicar was exasperated: "Do not ask; give," he said. Wittgenstein was so impressed with this direct attitude, Monk writes, that "he repeated it to his friends on a number of occasions." Terribly sorry and all, but might I suggest an extension of this philosophy? When something is given to you with the right understanding, do not thank; accept.

Talk to the hand? Sure!
photo: Staci Schwartz
Talk to the hand? Sure!


James Westcott is English.

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