Lying is regular a part of being polite.
Long-time readers know that I don’t accept guest posts here, other than two or three by-invite exceptions. But I get requests all the time and I try to turn people down graciously.
Even though a lot of them are probably mass-mailing their submissions, I reason that in each case there may be a sensitive and hopeful person reading my response, and I don’t want to hurt them by being cold. So when I reject their offer, I add a lie. I tell them I am afraid.
“I’m afraid I do not accept guest posts on Raptitude.”
“I do not accept guest posts on Raptitude,” sounds too unsympathetic I guess, so some ridiculous habit has me claiming that this fact actually scares me, so the submitter knows I find my own policy as unforgiving and insensitive as they do.
Our language customs are full of these kinds of insulators. The truth, in very many cases, is just too brutal or embarassing to state as a fact, so we add in little fictions.
“Hello, Mr Smith, I was just wondering if I could borrow your pickup truck Saturday afternoon.”
In my culture, it’s normal to be afraid to even ask, “May I borrow your truck?” So you phone Mr Smith not to ask anything of him, but just to declare to him something you’ve been wondering about. Presumably, you believe he is the type of person who may find it interesting to know what topics you’ve been pondering recently, so you phoned to let him know. Perhaps he will then have the idea to offer you the truck, so that you no longer need to continue to wonder if it is possible that you could borrow it Saturday afternoon.
In a restaurant, I notice that when I decide that I want the veggie wrap, what I do not say to the waiter is, “I want the veggie wrap.” I don’t want to be crass. Instead I tell him that I would like the veggie wrap, as if we’re talking not about our immediate desires but hypothetical ones in some peripheral universe. Essentially I’m saying, “If we were in a situation where we were actually stating what we want here, I would tell you I want the veggie wrap — just so you know, for what it’s worth. Do with that information what you will.”
I have a memory of running punishment laps around the basketball court, while our coach stood on the bleachers yelling, “Sorry is the most misused word in the English language! Don’t tell me you’re sorry! You aren’t sorry, not yet!”
A teammate had left a ball out of the bin when we were supposed to put them all away. When the coach pointed it out, the player uttered a flippant, “Oh, sorry.” The coach’s eyes widened and he made us all do laps while lecturing us on the misuse of the word “Sorry” among today’s youth.
Honestly, I had never thought about it. I had always said it like a reflex. I forgot it was the same word used by authors to describe decrepit old farm buildings, pitiful Dickensian street children, and people whose lives are wracked with sorrow.
This misuse is bound to happen though — most kids are drilled to say “Sorry” for years before they ever learn that the word has meaning outside customary apologies. They learn what it actually means only later.
For the same reason, the perversion of the word “Please” is even more complete. We first learn it, as toddlers, as a sort of arbitrary password that allows us (usually) to have what we want. Normally, what we want is withheld from us the moment we express that we want it — as if there’s something fundamentally wrong with saying that you want something — until we say, “Please.” Some parents even call it “The magic word.”
Most of us learn a second meaning of the word please when we start reading books. One can please another, by doing something nice for them. Some never realize that it’s the same meaning, and that the “please” we say when we want something is short for “…if you please.” So essentially, it’s customary not to ask something of someone else unless you insist that you don’t want them to accommodate your request unless it genuinely brings them pleasure to do so. “Pass me the salt, but only if doing so would be a pleasing experience for you. There is no other reason I would ask.”
I recognize that to say “please” is only polite, and I know that we repeat the phrases that we know to be appropriate without really thinking about what the words in them actually mean.
Although I think there’s a lot of room for additional directness in the way we talk to others, I don’t condone radical honesty. There’s nothing worse than someone who doesn’t bother with manners, rationalizing that they’re just being “real” and they “don’t play games, man.” I prefer people play the game, even though it’s silly. It shows that you don’t want to be reckless with the reactions you cause in others.
Yet it fascinates me how rude it actually is to say exactly what you mean. We say aloud to our guests, “Well, I’d better start cleaning up…” rather than “I’d like everyone to leave now.” When did we get so embarrassed by our actual desires?
Maybe we are so hung up on the idea that we are civilized and egalitarian that we don’t want to acknowledge that we aren’t quite there yet. It seems like we’re pretending that our culture has reached such a level of grace that the desires of others are just as important to us as our own. If not, why do manners require that you say you only want the salt passed to you if the passer is pleased by passing it?
From that perspective it seems like a fairly deep-rooted sense of denial. We are not as selfless as we would like to be, and it’s rude not to pretend we are.
That’s just my guess. If you’ve grown up with this stuff it’s hard to come up with an objective take on where it comes from. What do you think?
Different societies have totally different customs too. I’d love to hear from readers in places where these kinds of language habits are significantly different than in Canada or the US. What about your local set of customs is ridiculous when you really think about it?
Photo by stevendepolo
If you liked this article, get email updates for free.