Honesty can be pretty damn rude

Post image for Honesty can be pretty damn rude

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?

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{ 60 Comments }

L. A. Howard April 15, 2013 at 12:49 am

There was an incident with some adult Chinese students when I was living overseas that is a perfect example of this. Some other American teachers and I had invited some adult students to an apartment of ours for dinner. Towards the end of the evening, the students got up to leave. One of the Americans said, “I wish you could stay longer!”, a typical phrase that we Americans (especially ones in the South) tend to say that we don’t really mean at all.

The students looked confused for a moment, and slowly sat down. None of us were expecting that! They sat there silently for a few moments before one of them said that their family was waiting, and they needed to go. It was all very polite, but amusing nonetheless! We remembered to choose our farewells with a bit more caution after that.

David April 15, 2013 at 3:33 pm

Haha! That’s what so interesting about all this to me. We’re so used to customary phrases that we don’t even think about what would happen if someone took them literally.

It Calls Me Onanon April 15, 2013 at 2:00 am

“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 one were to study Anthropology and the history of a particular people, one would recognize all of the influential social movements that people identified with/pushed forward and see that they did so because, most often, it fit their ends, their agendas and it validated some condition already in place—radical opposition was and is almost always fought against. For example, it’s the reason Thomas Jefferson didn’t push for the abolishment of slavery even though what he was declaring was for the enlightenment of mankind. Opposing slavery was too radical because it was too advantageous to people’s agendas, but declaring independence was something that was on the tip of an abused people’s tongues and so it was something that could be reasoned by measuring it against the extreme circumstances.

I wouldn’t say that people are pretending that their culture has reached a level of grace—that’s projecting your own narratives into human behavior. It’s more so a relic of the past that still agrees with people’s agendas in modern day—a structure and composition to social interaction dictated by contemporary ideas of what interaction is. We’re taught what the concept of interaction means between two people when we watch our parents or our peers, and that is just a product of today’s conventions.

Also, I feel like being provocative because of this post. I’ve been told before on this forum that it’s “too brainy” or “intellectual” to talk about things as I do, from a perspective that eliminates cultural biases, etc., but it’s not. I would say that if one is honestly attempting to find meaning and understanding one must talk about reality as it is or else they are taking their own perceptions for granted and limiting the audience that they could possibly reach, instead opting for those who reach out in ignorance and can only listen without providing any kind of useable feedback.

Vilx- April 15, 2013 at 2:22 am

I’m from Latvia and our culture is pretty similar in this respect. The words we use might have slightly different origins, but it’s generally the same (we’re a Western culture too).

However, I see this issue a bit differently. I think that these words and phrases actually HAVE another meaning. Language is evolving and words acquire and lose meanings all the time. The old “direct” way of saying things has evolved and now means something like “I want this irregardless of what you think. If you deny me this, I will be angry at you.”. The new “roundabout” way means “I want this, but I respectfully ask it of you and will not get upset if you deny it, because I understand that you have plans and wishes too”.

So, in other words, I do not think this is “lying” of any kind, because you’re not trying to trick anyone an nobody takes these words literally anyway (your coach was just being a smart-ass). Instead, these are new phrases with new meanings, unrelated to the meanings that they had back in the Dickensian era.

So I don’t think there is any loss of “directness” here – in fact, I think there is even an improvement of “directness”, because now we have several “flavors” of “I want this” that we can use in conversation with varying degrees of politeness and other connotations. I suppose you could rephrase it all and go completely explicit (and become painfully verbose) just to keep every word at it’s “default” meaning, but that would give you few advantages and waste a lot of breath.

judith April 15, 2013 at 2:24 pm

I agree with you Vilx.

I had a high school English teacher go on a rant about the use of the word “pretty”. That the definition of it had to do with appearance. I have always remembered this, and continually noticed how it is used to mean “considerable” or in place of “very”. But if you check the dictionary today, as I recently did, that is now one of the definitions.

David April 15, 2013 at 3:39 pm

Oh I agree, these phrases do have meaning aside from what the words mean. The whole point of this post is that we go by this secondary, adopted meaning, even though the literal meaning is often ridiculous or completely dishonest. No, it isn’t lying in the sense that we are intending to deceive anyone, but our customs often do not allow us to be direct with our use of words and still be polite. If you’re talking to someone from the same culture, you can be quite articulate using customary phrases, but with respect to the language itself, those phrases are usually less direct and less accurate.

Vilx- April 15, 2013 at 5:13 pm

I guess it comes down to whether or not you consider these customary phrases and their meanings to be part of the language itself or not.

Tom K April 18, 2013 at 1:33 pm
Christine April 15, 2013 at 2:53 am

The post made me think of my spanish lessons and the difficulties of learning the subjunctive. I can’t pretend to be a master of it, but basically (and this is way too crude- there is no ‘one’ rule) you use it when something is uncertain in the future, to speak of something that you would like that may not be given. We used to have it in English but do not, the closest is to think of ‘I would that I could go to the shops to-day’, or ‘May the road rise to meet you’. Another example is when you speak about what you would like someone else to do – in fact the road example is sort of this as well – I hope that the road will rise to meet you, but I have no real control over it myself so it must remain a hope.

Your post, and my musings on the Spanish subjunctive, made me wonder whether our language is not lies but an expression of the uncertainty of life – fundamentally the uncertainty of whether we can as individuals live together in community – it is not something that is ever won but must be tentatively approached every time. You are afraid when you write to a stranger about the post – you are afraid of their opprobrium, even though you have never met them, and even though it is one email, because it matters to you. It matters because whether we can forge a relationship with strangers matters. Perhaps our language captures the tension between individual needs and our recognition of selfish motivation, and the community that we seek with each other to make our life meaningful which must always be tentatively forged.

But (depressingly?) perhaps this is also self-interested? Interestingly, Oliver Burkeman writing in the Guardian on Saturday (http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/oliverburkeman) notes that if we emphasise people’s free choice when we ask them to do something, studies show they are more likely to do it. We all value freedom so much, that we are more likely to do something if it is emphasised to us that we do not need to do it and feel that compliance is voluntary.

Gunhild April 15, 2013 at 3:09 am

Vilx’ commend made me instantly think of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He though cleverly about how words have different meanings not only over time but in different contexts. He called these contexts “language games,” by which he ment that diffent areas like school language, military language or how we speak in the super market essentially can be seen as a kind of game which has it’s own rules. In these games the same words might have slightly different meanings than in other language games. I think you would find him interesting, David. Just my five cents …

Adriano April 15, 2013 at 4:23 am

> “Well, I’d better start cleaning up…” rather than “I’d like everyone to leave now.”
I see those kind of manners more like as an overprotective resource, in order to decrease as much as possible the possibility of misunderstanding.
First because, most of people, in their normal condition, understand what you really want to mean. But if, for any reason, they aren’t able, this kind of phrase constructions avoid bad connotations. That’s why I wouldn’t call them “lie”, their meaning are suppose to be well understood, and we know that they can be not.
Basically a “language hack”, just like HTML or CSS hacks… ;)

Maia April 15, 2013 at 5:13 am

Hi David, you’re right. The English language is so indirect, that foreign students often get confused of what’s actually required of them, because they are used to being asked directly.
As a Czech person and knowing both languages, I can see that Czech is more direct than English and people ask me when I go back home, why I keep saying please and thank you all the time.
On the other hand I have to say, that it’s quite nice being spoken to politely as is the custom here in the UK, probably more so than in the US. And sometimes people in Czech are really just plain rude and it comes as a complete shock to me, when I’m used to the politness in the UK.
But that is a cultural thing probably coming from a long time of Comunism where no customer service was needed.
I prefer politness over directness I’d say overall, even if it does sometimes seem over the top and you have to double check what the person is actually saying because it’s so indirect it’s hard to even comprehend sometimes!

David April 15, 2013 at 3:44 pm

I noticed the same thing when I was traveling with German backpackers. If someone is saying something they know to be incorrect, they will say “No, what you are saying is not true. Let me tell you the reason.” It struck me as rude the first few times I witnessed this, but they were just being direct and honest. Where I come from people are expected to feel attacked in a small way when they are openly contradicted. We’re supposed to say something like “You know, I think it might actually be like this…”

Gary April 20, 2013 at 12:15 pm

This effect is even stronger when you just have text. I worked at an American company that had a German subsidiary. In person or over the phone we had perfectly comfortable technical discussions. However over E-mail it always felt like my German counterparts were calling me out and completely dismissive of my ideas.

yliharma April 15, 2013 at 5:34 am

In Italian it’s quite the same as in English, we say a lot of “sorry”, “excuse me”, “please”, “thank you” and we even answer to the “thank you” with the equivalent of “you’re welcome” that is now not so used in English, is it?
Sometimes, with very close friends and family, we are more “rude”…but not so much as to forget a “thank you”!

David April 15, 2013 at 3:45 pm

“You’re welcome” is very much alive and well where I live.

Marcelo Grava April 15, 2013 at 6:25 am

Hello David, I’m from Brazil and have been reading your blog for a while. Guess I’ll never be able to read all the posts I’d like to, but anyway… it’s been really pleasant to follow your thoughts, congratulations and keep it up!

Anyway, thinking about this language habits subject and especially on how it applies to Portuguese, I thought about the expression “obrigado”, which in our language is “thank you”. Actually, the verb ‘to thank’ is “agradecer” in Portuguese, but we say “obrigado” (which is ‘obliged’) to thank someone. Confusing? I guess. But it all means that, instead of saying a simple “thank you”, like english-talking people, we say something like a simplified form of “I’m obliged to thank you”. There are some people that say “agradecido”, which is a nice approximation of “thanks”, but it’s rare and it sounds kind of odd — might even apply some irony to the phrase, depending on the context.

That said – and added up to other foreign people’s comments – we can all agree that this silly mannerisms are global, but I guess we can also agree that there’s nothing more annoying that the I-don’t-play-the-game kind of people. I think that true communication resides mostly in our acts, not on the superficial, talking language — and these, yes, must be sincere so we can build good acquaintanceships in our society.

David April 15, 2013 at 3:56 pm

I agree, it’s only sensible to be polite, whatever that means in a given culture. But it’s interesting to take a second look at what politeness makes us actually say sometimes.

Talita April 16, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Marcelo, I always interpreted “obrigado” as “I’m obliged to you because of what you did for me”, more or less like “I owe you”. That’s why when we say “de nada”, it means you’re obliged to nothing, or “I free you from the obligation you acquired when I did you a favour”. What about the favours, by the way? :) What would the literal meaning be?

I really really liked the view that you only ask for someone to do something if it pleases them. Really, that’s what any request should be about. People shouldn’t go around doing stuff for us that they really don’t want to do. Unfortunately it’s very hard to politely turn down requests that were made with a “please” in them. That’s why we say we’re taken with sorrow for not being able to.

Dana April 15, 2013 at 6:38 am

I had the experience of working with a foreign exchange student from Germany not too long ago. One thing she pointed out to me that she thought was the strangest thing was that store associates/clerks/cashiers/etc. always asked “How are you doing?” (or something along those lines). The student commented to me that this was never done in Germany; that they usually made some mention of the purchase/transaction being made, or nothing besides a simple greeting. Her criticism was that it’s obvious that the associate did not really care how she was doing in the first place, and so, why would they bother to ask? Interesting.

CB April 15, 2013 at 9:11 am

This anecdote definitely made me laugh. ‘How are you doing?’ seems to slip into random meetings on the street all the time and knowing how to respond can be a challenge. I was an exchange student to Belgium. After I got back to the US, something had switched in my brain that made me think that people really did want to know – and so I’d give them an answer. In Belgium, you asked a similar question if you genuinely wanted an answer. It has taken me years to retrain myself and just say ‘fine, and you?’ and be done with it.

Carl Klutzke April 15, 2013 at 2:48 pm

I was going to comment on the “How are you doing?” behavior as well, especially when asked by people who are literally walking away from me. I’ve developed a habit of trying to answer the question in an interesting way. I suppose that’s not the most polite thing to do, but it has led to some fun conversations.

David April 15, 2013 at 3:59 pm

>Her criticism was that it’s obvious that the associate did not really care how she was doing in the first place, and so, why would they bother to ask?

That’s what got me thinking about all this in the first place. Can we possibly mean all the words we say in reflexive customary exchanges? So often we’re expected to say something that isn’t quite true or isn’t genuine.

Miriam April 17, 2013 at 6:38 am

I was about to leave the same comment. Being from Lithuania, it took me quite a while to get accustomed to the British “How are you?”, especially when people ask it without meaning it.

And yes, the first few months I would burst into a rant about what was wrong with my life and why I wasn’t doing too well, because again, that’s a sort of an “unwritten rule”: if you reply “I am doing great” to a question “How are you?”, you will instantly cause great suspicion – how come you are doing so well if everyone around you clearly isn’t? :D

jonny July 15, 2013 at 12:14 pm

The superficial nature of manipulative sleaze, perhaps most visible in our use of words to appease those we are imposing upon, reveals our true nature’s which so many are in denial about.

You can be engrossed in your own thoughts about something important, reading a newspaper, communicating on your phone or otherwise off limits to a world of needy creeps but they won’t care; all they can think about is themselves. As a side note, I’m vaguely aware some people imagine this is “selfish” behaviour; those people are idiots – there is nothing Selfish about narcissistic or sociopathic (needy) imposition.

But those imposing will drip the most transparent sleaze pertaining to your welfare, which they ostensibly have a sudden interest in (not interested enough to leave you alone, of course). I will pretend they’re genuine and answer as honestly as I can; this invariably converts their interest into disinterest but it’s the backing away that is telling. They will roll their eyes, smirk or sneer, make visible faces to express their displeasure. Some will say, “Whoa, too much information buddy.”

I understand, they’re just being filthy, degrading sleazy scum (polite). But do they understand they’re asserting their guilt on a charge of sociopathic intent? I doubt it but that’s exactly what they’re saying; “I don’t care about your welfare, I only wished to impose.”

A world of leeches. No doubt many leeches imagine this sleaze to be polite. But the only polite quality is open and transparent communication of intent. And that’s when the source of the filth should become visible. Who teaches children how to be antisocial (polite)?

You say mothers. I say whores. That I’m correct isn’t as relevant as your aversion to truth and your utter disinterest in making a logical case to counter what you already know (on some level) to be true.

Or you wouldn’t be offended at all.

Alex April 15, 2013 at 6:59 am

“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?”

I have to disagree with you here. I think you’re forgetting that it’s possible to say exactly what you mean but word it so that you don’t come across as crass or rude. “Hey everyone, I’m very tired and would like to call it a night. It’s been a great night and I’m glad you all came over, but I’d like it if the party could start winding down.”

Of course, those might be lies. But hopefully they aren’t–in fact, in most cases I don’t see why they would be. And if they are, then leave them out. Anyone who responds to that by saying, “He’s getting TIRED?! Geez, how rude…it’s only 2am…” probably isn’t someone coming to your next party anyway.

I mean, come on–these are your friends! Why can’t you be honest with them?

“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?”

You answered your own question earlier: “I recognize that to say “please” is only polite, and I know that we repeat the phrases that we know to be appropriate without actually thinking about what the words in them actually mean.”

Exactly. I don’t think anyone consciously thinks “Pass me the salt, but only if doing so would be a pleasing experience for you.” They’re thinking about the word in accordance with its current usage–it changes the demand “Pass me the salt” to a request. That’s what this “manners” thing is all about. You request before you demand because there’s usually no reason for someone to deny your request. If some denies your request to pass the salt–”well, ok, that’s a little odd but I can get it myself. Not the end of the world…” If someone denies your request to leave your home after your party…there’s a bigger problem there, and now you know about it.

Lastly: “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.”

I am someone you would probably consider to be like that. It’s not that I don’t bother with manners (and I’ve definitely never said that I’m “real” or that I “don’t play games, man”). I just think a lot of it is a waste of potential honesty, and the degree to which someone plays this game says a lot more about the individual person than the state of our society.

I would never think of myself as being reckless with the reactions I cause in others. When dealing with friends, of course I alter my behavior slightly one way or another. We all do. But when dealing with people I don’t know…no matter what, I can’t predict a person’s reactions. Some would say that you should then alter your behavior to some middle-of-the-road, watered-down version so as to appeal to the widest number of people possible (which I suspect is where some facets of manners come from). There’s so many problems with that, though. The only logical way is to be yourself.

If you want me to get out of your house–awesome. It’s your house and I don’t need a reason. I would like one, for clarity’s sake, but I can probably infer on my own that you’re tired or irritated or that you just want to be by yourself. I’ve been that way too at one point (many points) so I understand.

And one can inflect “pass the salt” in many ways. Some are rude, some aren’t. But if you don’t take the trouble to at least acknowledge my trouble involved in handing you the salt (albeit, minor–some bits of “minding your manners” stem from trying to never, ever offend anyone. But other bits, like the salt thing, are there because the favor [passing the salt] is a slight effort on the other person’s part. And you want them to know that you’re grateful for it), then I can probably infer something general that the rest of your behavior would either confirm or deny–that you’re bossy and think you’re above everyone else.

You can’t tell much about a person in a single sentence, though. You’ve acknowledged on this site that you can be a very different person depending on the day. You might be sick and behave near the “‘lower latitudes’ of the overall human spectrum of consciousness.” If a waiter is clearly upset and puts on a facade when I ask them how they’re doing, I’d rather them just spend a minute venting–it may be slightly less “pleasant,” but at least it’s real.

The fact that “venting” is a thing at all is a sign that there’s a lot of people with a lot of pent-up emotions, and I think playing the manners game (after a certain degree necessary for civilization to function) is a large cause of that. Why is there a time-lock on our emotions?

Rambling now. Great post and it looks like there’s already a ton of great discussion!

David April 15, 2013 at 4:15 pm

>“Hey everyone, I’m very tired and would like to call it a night. It’s been a great night and I’m glad you all came over, but I’d like it if the party could start winding down.”

Like I said in the post, there are certainly ways we can be more direct without being impolite, but I cannot imagine most of the people in my life saying anything like the phrase above. To my (perhaps over-polite) Canadian ears it sounds quite blunt — it’s something I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a German say, or a maybe a particularly blunt American, but it’s not something my grandmother would have said in a million years. What is reasonable to our ears really varies with where we grew up.

Freedom | Rethinking the Dream April 15, 2013 at 7:29 am

I agree with Alex’s comment. I don’t see any reason we can’t be honest while still being polite. I think more often than not, it might just sound or fell a little weird to use more direct language. Many of us are not used to saying what we mean.

When I’m at a restaurant, and the server ask for my order, I usually say “I’ll have.” I tell them what I want because they asked. That’s a pretty normal conversation to have and there isn’t much reason to beat around the bush.

David April 15, 2013 at 4:21 pm

There’s a great discussion in the comments section here between Americans and Brits on what they consider polite phrasing in restaurants:

http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.ca/2012/08/saying-please-in-restaurants.html

Americans tend to argue that in a restaurant “please” is over-polite, because you are just giving the waiter the information he asked for so that he can do his job.

It can even make a request seem like a demand:

I’ve noticed in my (American) family that “please” is the marker of an order. “Would you wash the dishes?” is a question — the answer can be “no, I can’t right now” or “I will a little later” or “it’s not my turn” but “Would you wash the dishes, please?” is a statement that can have no other reply but washing the dishes immediately. “Please” winds up feeling impolite with people that you don’t have the right to order around, ie anyone other than your children.

cj April 15, 2013 at 8:26 am

Lying is an excellent tool. It has kept ours species viable for millions of years. In fact, all species use deception to survive. There is no denying what we are or that lying is, when used responsibly, a useful strategy. Some people simply cannot handle much honesty, so they get lied to more than others. This is the price some of us pay for being cry babies. I don’t like lying, but I am smart enough to know when it gets me what I want while sparing someone’s feelings.

David Scott April 15, 2013 at 9:03 am

Enjoyed this, David. I think you’d enjoy Steven Pinker’s books on language. He’s a famous Canadian cognitive linguist and he addresses a lot of the issues you raise. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Language_Instinct

I think your topic relates to the way we store words in our brains. Taboo words get stored in a special place near the amygdula, closer to the emotional center, which is why some people with brain damage can only say taboo words, while others can’t say “excrement” if they have a mouth full. My guess is you would find words like “please” and “thank you” stored in a specific location, giving them special emotional importance.

Every once in a while I meet somebody who simply doesn’t use words in their correct social context, often leaving them out completely. One such person would ride with the group in a cab, but when the cab stopped and let everybody out he’d walk away without a word. That always gave the feeling that he was angry about something, or otherwise upset. But he just couldn’t be bothered with the “see you all later” words that seemed to have no real meaning.

Another great book on language is S. I. Hayakawa’s “Language in Thought and Action” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S._I._Hayakawa He was the first to point out to me that the phrase “Nice weather we’re having.” communicates the idea that “I’m safe. I’m in the same tribe as you.”

It’s a subject of unending interest, the way we use and understand language. I’ve been in China for nine years now. If you think we are indirect, you won’t believe the Chinese. This is a land where “It might be difficult” means “there’s not a chance in hell.” Almost as bad as Hollywood, where “we’ll talk” means “we won’t talk and don’t try to call me”.

David April 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm

I’ve always been impressed with Pinker. I should read a book of his.

Charu April 15, 2013 at 9:25 am

I am from India and most of our languages have different words for being polite. For example we use a different word for ‘you’ depending on whether we are talking to a stranger, acquaintance or a close pal. So, being polite for us was using a different word, yet saying what you mean based on the degree of closeness with the recipient.

English is my second language and when I first started observing the culture of ‘please’ in western world, it did confuse me. I remember in my maiden trip to US, I told the waiter directly, ‘No I don’t want juice’ and he was taken aback with the brashness.

David April 15, 2013 at 4:30 pm

In French there are a few different forms of “you” also. In English there’s only one, and so there are places where it’s inappropriate to address someone with it, such as when you’re talking to “Her Majesty” the Queen. Even when I’m talking to non-royal elderly people, if I say the word “you” at all I feel like I’m overstepping something, I don’t quite know why.

>I remember in my maiden trip to US, I told the waiter directly, ‘No I don’t want juice’ and he was taken aback with the brashness.

That’s almost a perfect example of what fascinates me about this. There should be nothing wrong with saying that, but somehow we’re accustomed to being slightly offended at that.

Eugenio Perea April 15, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Mexico is the same: “Excuse me, Miss? Would it be possible to please ask you for a bowl of soup? If it’s not too much bother?”. My friends from Spain mock us mercilessly. My sister theorises that when the Spaniards left, we kept the version of Spanish that diplomats spoke, and it evolved from there. It can be a bit frustrating.

By the way, this reminds me of a brilliant little post on MetaFilter: Ask Culture vs. Guess Culture http://ask.metafilter.com/55153/Whats-the-middle-ground-between-FU-and-Welcome#830421

David April 15, 2013 at 4:36 pm

That’s a great post. I am definitely the product of a guess culture. When I worked in a high-end hotel, we had guests from all over the world, and some of them were very blunt about asking for extras all the time, special treatment, early check-ins and late check-outs. What bothered me is that they got most of these things. I thought it was rude to always be asking for things, and that the people who deserve discounts, extra time, or special treatment were the people who were too polite to ask.

Heather Thorkelson April 15, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Try being Canadian. Our polite ways have messed me up so much that I say “Sorry!” when people step on my feet, smash me with doors, you name it. I’d probably instinctively say sorry to someone who hit me with their car. Gawd…

David April 15, 2013 at 4:37 pm

I am Canadian and I am trying to get out of the habit of saying “Sorry” when someone bumps into me.

Dan April 15, 2013 at 2:26 pm

Thank you David: another very well written and stimulating blog. Aren’t human interactions very funny and interesting, when you think about it. What does being “polite”, or “having manners” really mean? I guess there are different possibilities. Some of my friends think that manners are those rules of “etiquette” that allow you to distinguish yourself from the great unwashed, a sign of membership to some elite: but I think that would be rude. For me being “polite” means being considerate of those around you, and that politeness could also sometime require you to breach the rules of etiquette. I love the story of the count and countess who had invited the old village priest for lunch. At the end of the meal a platter of fruits was brought in. The priest was presented the platter first: he picked an orange, which he proceded to cut in half and squeeze into into his water bowl (intended for rinsing the fruit), from which is then drank. Well, that is a “faux pas” if any! But the countess, undaunted, also picked an orange when next being presented with the platter, and likewise cut it and pressed it and drank the watery orange juice. The story says that the count was less courageous: he picked an apple!! The point of the story is that they did what they could to avoid embarrassing the old priest, even if that required doing things in a rather unusual way for them. I agree with Vilx that most of the phraseology around courtesy is really to denote that your interlocutor is your equal, deserving respect and consideration, and not someone who may be ordered around. “Would you please pass me the salt” in addition to indicating a desire to have the salt cellar, connotes that the person addressed is free, and as such does have a choice, which you are asking that person to exercise in your favour. “Pass me the salt” while being very clear about your need, lacks that consideration of your interlocutor’s status as an equal. I am told that in Japan it is considered rude to ask a question, or request something, if one could expect that the answer would have to be “no”: it is both impolite to say “no” and to put anyone in the position where they would have to say it! So you have to put yourself into the other person’s shoes beforehand and make sure that you are not going to create an embarrassing dilemma with your question or request. Wouldn’t the ability to empathize, put oneself into someone else’s shoes, and act accordingly, be one of the (fundamental?) qualities of a decent and ethical person in a society of equals? As Oscar Wilde put it: “A gentleman is someone who would never be rude unintentionally.”

Michael L April 15, 2013 at 2:26 pm

When I was 10 we moved from Portland, Oregon to Los Angeles. My first day there I started playing with the kid next door, Sean. I was eating potato chips and he said bluntly “give me some of yer chips!”

It confused and startled me, and I quickly gave up the bag to avoid getting my ass kicked. But within a week I discovered all the kids, and many adults, talked this way here. All he really meant was “Could I please have a chip?” .’

Well, maybe. Maybe Sean never learned another way to ask, but deep down weren’t he and his terse neighbors the same as me and my relatively-polite ones from Portland, on the “nice human” scale? Maybe just just used different lingo for the same meaning. On the other hand, perhaps if I didn’t acquiesce with the chips he really would’ve thrown a punch!

The question arises: Does the language we use actually influence our thoughts and/or drive our behavior, or is it merely a reflection -by products- of differences by area in social convention and semantics?

Maia’s comments on her experiences in Czech vs US/UK are very interesting in this regard.

Linguistic Relativity (Linguistic Determinism) is a fascinating subject … http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistic_relativity.

CatBallou April 15, 2013 at 2:36 pm

I believe strongly in the virtue of manners and traditional phrases, not just as a courtesy (please and thank you), but as a convention that helps ease the countless daily interactions that aren’t genuinely personal. I can only image the awkwardness if we had to treat each encounter as if it required an honest exploration of our wants, desires, and emotional states. The traditional phrases are an excellent social lubricant and signifier, and they help us all navigate our days with reduced stress. It’s not lying, it’s a sophisticated social mechanism, like the general rule of moving to the right (in the US) to avoid running into someone. If we were all “radically honest” in every encounter, no one could predict how the other person was going to behave, and all of our stress levels would soar. Predictability is a very useful phenomenon!
The awkwardness begins when people don’t know or follow the same rules. Interacting with people from another cultural background can be exhausting, no matter how interesting and rewarding it is. And in the US, we no longer operate from the same set of rules (if we ever did). Just look at all the advice columns that focus on manners!
(And Christine, English certainly does still have the subjunctive, although it may be rarely used.)

Jayce April 15, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Here’s a wonderful starting place for some newer research showing that the language we speak affects our behavior. http://blog.ted.com/2013/02/19/5-examples-of-how-the-languages-we-speak-can-affect-the-way-we-think/

Tiva Joy April 15, 2013 at 8:41 pm

I love this topic. (I also find it a bit comical that Canadians are portrayed to be extra apologetic.) I do try and use my manners often because that is how I was raised, and it just feels good to be polite. I work around taxicab drivers every day and really, really appreciate the guys who do use their manners… Some actually sound like they are demanding and rude, and forget to say thank you or sorry for snapping at you. A lot of the cab drivers are from foreign countries, and manners are looked at differently. It has taught me that even though some may not feel the personal need for politeness or even over-politeness, I still feel the need to say please and thank you… Because I like it when people are that way with me. I think I have gotten out of the habit of being sorry for things I shouldn’t be, but that had something to do with my own insecurities rather than it being a habit or a learned phrase to use. Maybe there are some who don’t need it, or others who struggle to keep living every day or even with mental issues and being polite is not necessary for them to survive but the universe is very balanced… So for every over-polite individual there ultimately is an overly rude one. Feelings can consume people in moments to where they may not think about being polite if it is not necessarily a habit they have deep rooted within themselves. As for me, I notice manners and find myself smiling more when I see it.

Kelkel April 15, 2013 at 8:55 pm

I have noticed it while training co-workers. I have a habit of being a tad too direct in that situation and realized that others feel slighted when that was not the intent at all. I am not unkind when I say it, I just simply state it. It shows up in the way they have trained me, too. I have found a couple things that I did “wrong” or differently, but I was never corrected during training because someone didn’t want to hurt my feelings. I wish we could intuit better that being direct is not the same as being mean.

Courtnee Papastathis April 15, 2013 at 10:04 pm

Your first sentence summed it all – Lying is a regular part of being polite. That is the essence of why I distrust excessively polite people.

Courtnee Papastathis April 15, 2013 at 10:32 pm

(and of course I read this particular post long after contacting you about guest posting – Durrr. :P)

helen April 16, 2013 at 7:06 am

Having just moved back to my native UK after 4 years living in Canada, I have to say I believe the Canadian culture does have the politeness thing elevated to an art form…and people are generally more direct and use a lot more sarcasm or jokey rudeness here in the UK to say what they mean.

I would add another point about politeness – my experience (and that of friends of other nationalities too) in Canada was that a lot of the etiquette also hinged on what was NOT said…there were certain codes about what you could or could not talk about or how to say things or go about stuff that were never explicitly described to us. When we blundered, the polite Canadians in general also did not want to cause offence by setting us straight. Unfortunately this did cause confusion/awkward social situations sometimes. It would have been great if someone had (rudely?) said: “you can’t say that!”

In my work I had to do a fair bit of research into elements of Canadian business, progress in science and industry, and competitiveness. I collected anecdotes from quite senior people that indicated this kind of indirectness also stopped practical things from actually getting done or finalised, because no-one was rude enough to just tell a colleague or business partner to get on with it, or what they were doing wrong.

I would add that I love Canada and met some great people there. Moving back to the UK I have had to re-adjust to our inbuilt rudeness/directness :)

Edward April 16, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Politeness aside, I think it’s fantastic when languages are used with all their flowery nuances. If everyone spoke plainly (aside from it seeming rude until we all got used to it) sentences would become so dull. We need poetry, we need to be able to say things without really saying them. I don’t think it’s civilization as much as it is art.

I was served by a bartender at a fancy hotel in London a few years ago. He reminded me of a stodgy old butler character from a movie–full of drawling “Yes, Siiiiiir,” and “No, Siiiiiir”‘s. To this day I have never had someone be so incredibly polite and proper to my face while being incredibly rude behind the façade. It was brilliant! I still laugh about it.

Claudia Borio April 18, 2013 at 5:54 pm

I am also from Brazil (someone else posted above). An interesting here is that it is very polite, when you meet someone, not to talk right away about the subject that brought you here, but first to make a bit of small talk, ask about the family, the weather, the business itself, and then get to the point. The farther you get from big towns, the more you have to obey this rule. I always thought that was a loss of time, but finally I started enjoying it. It makes things go smoother and it shows genuine interest- you may also prepare for business meetings by studying a bit about the family and the business history. It shows much consideration for the person you are talking to.

Bridget April 18, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Hi David
I came accross your website last night when googling self acceptance (I loved the article BTW).

Your article on honesty reminds me of a friend who suggested that “No” was a complete sentence and that I was not required to give lengthy justifications as to why I could or couldn’t do something when she asked me. She is very direct and added that any justification or rationalisation was a form of lying.

As a result of our conversation I wanted to become more aware of my responses and began to say no thanks, without including a list of “reasons”. This still does not come naturally for me so your article was a good reminder of staying conscious about the language we use.

Calvyn April 21, 2013 at 9:28 pm

Hi David, your article here really did strike a chord with me. When I was growing up here in Malaysia, my family had engrained the culture of P’s and Q’s – that is, ‘Please’ & ‘Thank You’ – in both me and my brother (not forgetting ‘sorry’ as well). My parents taught us that it was necessary, if not imperative, to be polite when conversing with others. But in my girlfriend’s family, they don’t use any P’s and Q’s. Yet, they are still very polite to one another in their own special way.

I won’t deny that’s true. In any case ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ are the most commonly misused words. To us who practice the culture, it would seem that it’s alright. But once you keep reusing them over and over again, it eventually gets old. I feel that way now. Apologies especially are wearing thin on me (yes, I’ve overused the word, I’m afraid).

In essence, it’s a cultural practice, but it all comes back to us individuals and our environment. For some like me, politeness is important and ensures that our relations with others doesn’t sour. For others, they can still be polite without using these words. As for me, I’m now trying to be more like the latter, but at the same time I know I can’t let the former go. Maybe in time I’ll see what happens next.

mariavlong April 22, 2013 at 6:18 pm

Nothing beats the drama of hearing Je suis desole from the french. You are not just sorry? you are desolate?? about loosing my reservation? Talk about hyperbole.

Lisa April 24, 2013 at 8:48 pm

I think it’s funny that people tell us to “not lie” and “be polite” at the same time. How does that work? I mean, the article has a point; sometimes that is virtually impossible. And plus, lying might save someones life. If some people captured you and demanded to know where someone was to kill them, you ultimately have to lie if you want to save their life, right? Sure, you want to be as truthful as possible, but “don’t ever lie, it’s good for you” is just one, big, fat lie. It’s funny how society works.

Lelala April 26, 2013 at 6:25 am

In a societey very wealth is so high that everyone owns a pickup truck – or, at least, in which most are used to own all items on their own – its quite common, that, if you are the single person asking others to borrow somthing to you (regardless if drillingmachine or lawnmower or whatever), while everyone else owns the stuff, its quite clear you will perceived as “not-one-of-us”.
But, its 2013: Upcoming is the sharing economy, which expects that *not* everyone is owning all the stuff, but you are consuming things collectively.

Farage April 26, 2013 at 4:21 pm

It’s fascinating – I was thinking of the common, polite lies we tell each other everyday, because of my personal moral code (highly influenced by Buddhism) that “one shouldn’t use deceitful language”, but lies are embedded in the very language itself. I am from a different country, where people speak portuguese, and it’s fascinating how similar languages are when we are trying to be polite.
When you say “I’m afraid”, we say “Temo” (which means exactly the same thing, used in the exact same situation). When I say “Por favor” (which would translate as your “please”, but literally meaning “as a favor”), this is very close to the japanese おねがいします (onegai shimasu).

I have come to terms with these… terms. I’ve come to understand that it makes people more comfortable when you use this language that may sound as a lie at first, but comes out as a flowery honesty: everyone knows what’s going on, but we feel better when people take the time to alter their speech just not to offend us. If someone would say “I’d better start cleaning up” fifteen minutes after entertaining someone, it would sound rude as well, despite the language. I don’t really know anyone foolish enough to believe these half-baked truths.

Instead, we have a pact of silence. A rather interesting one, to say the least: while learning japanese, which has many different levels of politeness, I often wonder: “How funny it is, that I can make my speech more acceptable merely by adding a word to a phrase!”. “Ossos do ofício”, I’d say in my native language – “that’s the way it goes”.

Theresa April 26, 2013 at 7:31 pm

I spent some time in Switzerland, and there they have a wonderful custom for letting guests know it’s time to go after an evening party: brew a pot of coffee. Guests then have a quick cup before heading home. It’s a lovely tradition, I think, especially in a country where the landscape requires particular alertness when driving at night.

Andy April 27, 2013 at 11:27 am

For me, this is all variable depending on the situation. It’s easy to dismiss “politeness” as a waste of time, but I feel like its purpose is to acknowledge that you and another human’s feelings are equally important. Conversely, I’ve noticed that with people who are in a position of power, politeness often goes by the wayside. Directness can create or reinforce a power structure. By refusing to acknowledge that the other party’s feelings are important, you are asserting that you are in a position of power (albeit at the potential cost of being liked). This can definitely backfire. I’ve seen a lot of people try to use rudeness or directness as a form of intimidation or power grabbing that has resulted in them not only not getting what they wanted, but also suffering further negative consequences.

I guess I feel that politeness is a form of submission or humility, acknowledging that there is a certain inherent dignity with which all people should be treated and that you are not above that.

Emily April 30, 2013 at 4:42 am

I just had an experience where someone who I have to deal with a lot found out I had been “saying rude things about him” behind his back, and asked that if I had something negative to say to him I should say it to his face. He then proceeded to tell me that I am untalented and that I could stand to learn something from the more talented people in the group (referring to himself. I know him from a competitive college choir that we are both part of). I have learned over time to control my frustration at comments like this because it does more harm than good, but I fundamentally disagree with what he was telling me to do. I find insulting people entirely selfish. Maybe his intention is to get me to change my behavior, but telling me that I am untalented will not cause me to work any harder, mostly because I honestly can’t, and it surely won’t cause me to respect people like him who are so egotistical that they think they are better than me because they can sing better than I can. I am sure that if I had told him how annoying, rude, and disrespectful I thought it was that he showed up to an important performance high, he wouldn’t have changed his behavior either because he thought he performed perfectly well. I chose to complain to other, uninvolved people because I just needed to let off steam and I knew doing so in his direction would have produced essentially the same effect: him insulting me. Which would do more harm than good. Anyway, I would like to know your thoughts on this.

Marcel Grünauer May 25, 2013 at 6:11 am

These indirections and politeness layers are even more pronounced in Japanese. For example, if you want to quit your job, it would be too direct to say 「辞めます」(“yamemasu”), literally “[I] quit.”; instead you would probably use the far more involved 「”辞めさせていただけますか?」(“yamesasete itadakemasuka?”), which, if translated word for word, is like “Can I receive from you the causing-me-to-quit?”.

Damn Yankee October 18, 2013 at 12:34 am

Great post. I can relate. As a ‘damn Yankee’ now living in the South, I am flabbergasted by the amount of time people waste saying ‘low content’ things. To me, its a total waste of time and really f-ng annoying when all I want is to give you my bagel order, pay, get the bagel and leave. Why do we have to stop and say ‘Hiiiiiii how are youuuuuu?’ Etc first. I know you dont care, secondly if i fall into your warm gooey trap and start to feel like oh wow maybe i just made a new friend, i am wrong. its just their version of ‘hey how ya doin’. thirdly, and most importantly, the relationship is a business one. Lets conduct the business aspect first. I need to get it done and out of the way. Only then can my mind relax and go into ‘play mode’. We can chat once the bill is paid and the bag of food is in my hand. That is the moment when I will indulge you in a story of your on baseball game or advice on where to park downtown on a weekend. To me, the extended hello is reserved for friends, close friends, so when i get a super friendly hello from someone and thy dont then make another effort to take the friendship further like getting together for coffee or acting genuinely interested in my kids/troubles/ whathaveyou, I feel deceived and offended. It has taken me quite some time to adjust. I have to be more patient and be less focused on hyper efficient store clerk- ism and accept that ‘hiiiiii…’ Etc is a simple hello meant to be respectful and polite. Im ok with it now. But most of my friends are yankees and none of us seem to have any true southern friends. Hopefully i’ll make a southern friend someday. Right now, ive worked my way p to having southern acquaintances. We run into each other at various functions and take an honest albeit slightly surface level interest in each others lives. Good enough.

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