Against Politeness

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

Here's a routine New York exchange, observed from an anonymous distance, that would never happen so gracefully in England: It's dark and raining, and a woman steps out of the Bowery Ballroom for a cigarette. But the bouncer won't let her shelter under the awning because she'd be in front of the exit, violating the fire code. "You have to stand out to the side," he mumbles. The woman doesn't want to get wet and so hovers for a second, amused, in the disallowed zone. Then, as another smoker goes back inside, he hands what seems to be a utility umbrella to the bouncer. The bouncer gives the umbrella to the woman without a word, and she takes it without a word, as if this was an established system she already knew about, although this seems doubtful. Genius.

If we lived in the English grammarian and general grouch Lynne Truss's ideal world—a world of overbearing politeness and its attendant awkwardness that she laments the supposed death of in her new book Talk to the Hand: The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door—then this encounter would have been considerably less efficient, intuitive, and gratifying. "But come on, it's raining." "Sorry, it's the fire code." (One thing the U.S. and U.K. have in common, if not styles of social interaction, is the petty tyranny of insurance and lawsuit precautions.) To no one in particular, the woman would then say: "Well, that's ridiculous." Then the man returning the umbrella would say: "Er, here's the umbrella. Where shall I put it?" "Anywhere's fine." "Oh, OK. Thanks a lot for that." After a brief, difficult silence the bouncer would summon the courage to say to the woman: "Here, you can use this if you want, but make sure you give it back." "Oh, are you sure? Oh, great. Whose umbrella is it? Thanks a lot. I'll only be a second."

I know which system I prefer, and that's why I'm remaining an Englishman in New York. Truss's last decline-and-fall polemic, on the state of English grammar, called Eats, Shoots & Leaves, sold 3 million copies, and Talk to the Hand is sure to be an easy stocking filler this Christmas for grumpy old men everywhere in the Western Hemisphere (I'm thinking of buying it for my father). While her anecdotes about inattentive, snotty adolescents at supermarket checkouts are pretty funny, Truss might have done better to spend her time examining a more urgent problem—actually more of a pathology, in need of a national psychoanalysis. The English can't ask clearly and directly for what they want, and this is precisely a function of our obsession with Truss-style politeness, which does a lot more than keep people safely at arm's length. It makes us terrified of strangers and ashamed of our desires. Petulance, passive aggression, and a fear of strangers result. Give me the smoothness of New York interactions— especially with their bravado or bluntness—over the mutually assured dithering in English corner shops any day.

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

"Please," "sorry," and "thank you" do more than grease the social wheels, as Truss says: They turn us into nervous wrecks. They also muffle the impact of social transactions, even nice ones. But this is exactly why Truss champions "politeness words," calling them signs of personal morality and upholders of "quotidian ethics." It's significant that most of Truss's armory of anecdotes—which she happily concedes, with typical English self-deprecation, don't constitute anything approaching a methodology—are drawn from service situations. Politeness words serve the dual function of making us feel important when we're being served ("Thank you, madam"), and allowing us to mitigate the strange English shame that comes with being served ("Oh, thank you"). There's a unique awkwardness to over-the-counter transactions in England that you just don't get in New York. In England I used to blush buying a CD or groceries. And when I waited tables, both parties would quickly become uncomfortable, and not just because I was a liability when serving boiling hot soup or pieces of dripping meat at the end of a fork and spoon.

A wonderful incident in W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn illustrates the English problem with serving, and our fear of strangers. Wandering England's famously bland and genetically isolated eastern coast, Sebald's narrator is the only guest at the Albion hotel in Lowestoft (a seaside town they forgot to close down). The young woman who serves him a reconstituted fish dinner in the hotel's excruciatingly empty dining room flits around, avoiding speech and eye contact. The narrator concludes, "All I can remember are the scarlet blotches which appeared from the neckline of her blouse and crept up her throat as she bent for my plate."

The terror of service encounters—although Sebald's character differs in that he thinks he's worth it—isn't caused just by the dissolution of the English caste system, which has left both the customer and server adrift at best, angry at worst. (Truss notes how a shop assistant responded to her request for civility: "Just because you spent thirty pounds doesn't mean you've bought my soul.") Something else is going on. Pleading too much, which we're prone to, seems to embarrassingly reveal that you don't think you deserve what you're about to get, or that you feel snobbish pity for the person who's giving it to you; thanking obsessively becomes a way of rejecting what you've just been given, of refusing to properly absorb the generosity; and most weirdly, "sorry" has been inverted so that it now prefaces a perfectly reasonable request.

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.


James Westcott is English.

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