Positive and negative politeness
April 7, 2018 8:22 AM   Subscribe

Does politeness mean being warm and welcoming, or not imposing yourself? The well-mannered dictionary-makers at Oxford err on the side of tactful, considerate, thoughtful, discreet, diplomatic. Brown and Levinson created the modern theory of positive and negative politeness, which suggests that different cultures have very different ideas about what's polite. Jane H. Hill had the theory in mind when she discovered that she was not as warm, friendly, and outgoing as she had thought. Benjamin Bailey concluded that different conceptions of politeness between Korean-Americans and African-Americans helped shape the Los Angeles riots in 1992 (PDF).

(Possibly related: Metafilter classic Ask Culture vs. Guess Culture.)
posted by clawsoon (66 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
 
If I'm being overly formal and polite towards you it means I don't know you and probably don't want to...
posted by jim in austin at 8:51 AM on April 7, 2018 [3 favorites]


If I'm being overly formal and polite towards you it means that I assume that you probably don't want to know me and I don't want to intrude.
posted by clawsoon at 8:55 AM on April 7, 2018 [42 favorites]


Or in the case of an ex friend of mine, it's "Now I suddenly hate you and this is how I tell you."

But anyway...this is an interesting idea but I think I'm still not that clear after reading the links as to what is going on.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:01 AM on April 7, 2018


^ the Canadian way

(Edit: clawsoon’s)
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:01 AM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


The full article (the final PDF link) is a good read. Some of the "what is going on" is in the conversational analysis there.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:02 AM on April 7, 2018 [10 favorites]


This sounds interesting but none of the links really tell me what the main idea's about, or at least not soon enough for my Saturday morning lazyass. "Uptight", how? Which link do I invest time in?
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 9:08 AM on April 7, 2018




I probably should've included the Wikipedia article, which has a good discussion of the concepts and some examples, but I didn't know if that would breach site etiquette.

Apologies.
posted by clawsoon at 9:20 AM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


“With the greatest respect”

What others understand: He is listening to me.
What the British mean: You are an idiot.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:21 AM on April 7, 2018 [26 favorites]


The Bailey article was fascinating.
Reminded me in some ways of my experience of moving from the American north to the deep South.
posted by doctornemo at 9:22 AM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


“That is a very brave proposal.”

What others understand: He thinks I have courage.
What the British mean: You are insane.
posted by leotrotsky at 9:23 AM on April 7, 2018 [17 favorites]


there's an intersection between politeness and mindfulness, and i would identify mindfulness as not imposing yourself rather than calling that politeness. it's hard to divide personal interactions between the two though and the more i think about it the more muddled it gets. but the general definition of mindfulness as taking care with your current place in the world and how it relates to others is my basic view. and in that view, one important aspect is that you try your best to match your behavior to that of the person with whom you are interacting; so it's not just code switching in language, but also in social interaction.

frex if i know certain groups of people expect small talk (older relatives, older coworkers, etc) then despite my extreme loathing i will provide them with small talk. if i know people, RIGHTLY, LIKE ME, find it an appalling imposition, i will delight in avoiding it as strictly as they do. the pdf article is fascinating in this respect for exactly how this specific situation can go really incredibly wrong.

it's so much easier in languages with the formal you. my kingdom for the safety of an usted.
posted by poffin boffin at 9:31 AM on April 7, 2018 [27 favorites]


poffin boffin: there's an intersection between politeness and mindfulness, and i would identify mindfulness as not imposing yourself rather than calling that politeness.

The Scandinavian farmers I grew up with would strongly disagree with you. Politeness is not imposing yourself. But they would never say so, because that would be impolite.

It took me at least a decade of encountering other cultures in Toronto to realize that some people might find me standoffish and - by how they'd been raised - coldly impolite. That was made clear by a friendly Irish man on the streetcar who ended our interaction with an exasperated, "Just like the bloody English."
posted by clawsoon at 9:52 AM on April 7, 2018 [9 favorites]


I was once reprimanded at a former job for my "attitude." Apparently my co-workers thought I was cold, or stand-offish, or snooty, or something like that. And I'm like, what? I barely know these people, and you want me to force them to acknowledge my presence by imposing on them and interrupting them with meaningless small talk? We're all just trying to get through the day here!
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:52 AM on April 7, 2018 [38 favorites]


“With the greatest respect”

What others understand: He is listening to me.
What the British mean: You are an idiot.


whenever I feel tempted to start a sentence with "respectfully", I try to bite my tongue. Because I realize that what's about to come out is "you're wrong", but with the tiniest dollop of sweetener. Which, if you're anything like me, is worse than just a sweetener-free "you're wrong". Or, as I'm likely to voice it (that is, if I feel I really must voice it), "Ummm, sorry but I think that's wrong." Notice how I've tactfully made the idea wrong and not (necessarily) the person who voiced it. Notice how (more often than not) they don't parse the difference.

But seriously, what we really need more of in this overheated cultural moment is folks having the ability to realize that the ideas they're espousing aren't necessarily raw pieces of their selves. That is, it's not you that's morally and ethically corrupt, it's the cumulative spew out of all those f***ing Jordan Peterson Youtube threads (or whatever) you've been hanging out in.
posted by philip-random at 9:53 AM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


Afterthought: I've also been accused with the statement: "You never talk to me unless you need something." Well, of course. If I didn't need something, why would I bother you? And it should go without saying that anyone who needs anything should feel free to approach me at any time.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:57 AM on April 7, 2018 [18 favorites]


I have a weaponized version of "Have a nice day" I've used at work a few times over the years when the situation warranted it.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:12 AM on April 7, 2018 [3 favorites]


It took me at least a decade of encountering other cultures in Toronto to realize that some people might find me standoffish and - by how they'd been raised - coldly impolite. That was made clear by a friendly Irish man on the streetcar who ended our interaction with an exasperated, "Just like the bloody English.

This reminds me of one time I was in St. John's out at a bar on George St. and I was trying to get to the bathroom, and I had to go by a group who were talking amongst themselves in a hallway without much room to pass. I did what I thought was polite as a Prince Edward Islander and squeezed past without causing a fuss. They called me out immediately for being unfriendly and not stopping to chat. When I apologized and they figured out I wasn't a Newfoundlander they weren't surprised. Lesson learned.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:18 AM on April 7, 2018 [7 favorites]


France is a doozy for this, as the popular American conception of French people as "rude" bears witness.

In France it's polite to keep a distance with people you don't know – in restaurants this translates as "I'm a waiter and don't know you, so I'm going to leave you the fuck alone beyond serving you food" and the roughly-appropriate diner politeness expected is "I'm a diner and don't know the waiter, so I'm going to leave them the fuck alone beyond asking for food." Smiling is intimate, jokes are frowned upon if there's not an already-established relationship.

Irony is widely used in formal situations. Take an example from a regulatory project someone I know *cough* is working on; the regulator told the company "you're a good example." This was widely communicated throughout the company as positive. However, they didn't account for context: the regulator said it one-on-one, not in front of any other companies, and the company didn't ask for any specific feedback (which is also a faux pas – they should have asked).

Turns out that it was ironic.

In France you keep face by being wary of irony at any turn and taking in criticism with firmly neutral requests for specific feedback. This dry irony and constant critiquing is seen as severely face-injuring by a whole lot of other cultures, many of them neighboring (hi England, Scotland and Ireland).

Flip side, I was initially raked over the coals in a French company for "being nice" (read the Anglo interpretation of "polite") to our London offices. "Why do you keep asking them if they're doing well and talking about the weather?? Who the fuck cares about the weather??" Being as I have a French face now, I swung back with "The English, for fuck's sake!" I was left to my devices as a result and successfully built much better communication with the people in London. It was even grudgingly (thus not ironically) acknowledged by the French offices.
posted by fraula at 10:24 AM on April 7, 2018 [49 favorites]


Politeness is not imposing yourself.

right but then you get the interactions as described in the longer article wherein people think you're rude for not responding in kind, and in interethnic social relations it looks a lot like deliberate bigotry rather than just different cultural values.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:26 AM on April 7, 2018 [10 favorites]


god france is heaven i don't even tutoyer at dogs
posted by poffin boffin at 10:27 AM on April 7, 2018 [19 favorites]


Here’s one I struggle with. I’ll be talking to someone, and they’ll obliquely mention something personal without going into detail. Now, in my mind, if they wanted me to know the personal details, they would have told me, but since they didn’t, they don’t want me to know, and therefore I shouldn’t ask. Kind of like how adults speak in code around children to keep them from knowing things they’re not supposed to know. The best the kid can do is play dumb and hope the adults let a few decipherable details slip through.

Later on it occurs to me that maybe the person I was speaking with was dropping a feeler to see if I was interested in hearing more about their personal life, and since I didn’t engage, I seemed uninterested, and therefore they didn’t go into detail. Now, sometimes it’s true that I’m not interested in hearing about an acquaintance’s personal life, and maybe sometimes it’s true that they don’t want to go into detail, but other times it’s someone I would like to get to know better and maybe that feeling is mutual.

Happens to me all the time and I think it’s one of the things that keeps me from connecting with people. It’s really hard to calibrate in realtime because I tend to go into detached “polite” mode when I’m not completely at ease, which is generally the case around people I don’t know well. So it self-reinforces.
posted by mantecol at 10:28 AM on April 7, 2018 [24 favorites]


Reminds me of this recent AskMe question, filled with people whose minds were blown at the idea that those who they had judged as being rude and self-absorbed might have been, in fact, operating in a different cultural context with a different set of rules for politeness!
posted by btfreek at 10:30 AM on April 7, 2018 [6 favorites]


France is a doozy for this, as the popular American conception of French people as "rude" bears witness.

It gets even more interesting when you export it to Canada
posted by halation at 10:35 AM on April 7, 2018


The oblique point upthread that associates the reserved interaction style with Scandinavian cultures is imteresting in a Seattle context. There's a strange jnteraction we have here known locally as the "Seattle Freeze" in which transplants to here commonly find it exasperatingly hard to develop new social networks and friendships. The interaction style appears to have social roots related to the strong ethnic presence of persons of various Scandinavian heritages in Seattle's early development.
posted by mwhybark at 10:42 AM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


Half-baked theory time: Maybe different conceptions of politeness help with group formation the same way that different languages do, by amping up inter-group hostility. Those people are always so rude, while my people at least know the basics of treating each other decently.
posted by clawsoon at 11:28 AM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


(That idea most comes from fraula's explication of the differences between French and English politeness. Both are viewed as reserved, standoffish cultures, but that you both use negative politeness does not mean that you'll see each other as polite. All of the variations on what's the polite way to share and ask for personal information in the AskMe linked by btfreek - and how rude people who doitwrong are perceived - is illustrative, too.)
posted by clawsoon at 11:44 AM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


From the "Los Angeles riots" link (study of Korean vs. African-American models of politeness):

Just as African-American experiences of racism prepare them to
interpret Korean behavior as racist, the dominant American discourses that disparage
African-American race, language, and culture provide Korean immigrants
with a template through which to evaluate African-American service
encounter interactional style negatively
, particularly when it violates their own
assumptions about appropriate service encounter relations and behavior.


In an article whose thesis comes across as "racism isn't really endemic amongst Korean shopkeepers, it's just miscommunication," this statement sure does imply that racism is endemic amongst Korean shopkeepers. It seems that this article could have benefited from an approach that sought to explain the origins and implementations of racism that African Americans in these communities were perfectly capable of recognizing, rather than seeking to "well actually" away the racism itself?
posted by Krawczak at 12:35 PM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


I don't think it tries to "well actually" away the relative disinterest of the shopkeepers in adopting a different register. A few condensed paragraphs from the article's wrap-up:

"Many Korean immigrant retailers have maintained businesses for years in African-American neighborhoods, giving them the opportunity to learn to approximate the conventions of their customers in service encounter interaction. Despite contact over extended periods of time, many storekeepers do little to approximate the relevant communicative conventions of their African-American customers. This maintenance of differences suggests that there are reasons other than cultural and linguistic habit that prevent storekeepers (and customers) from greater communicative accommodation..."

"These particular aspects of communicative behavior in service encounters – the lack of accommodation displayed by parties over time, and the intensification of opposing behaviors in single encounters – are better explained by the socially, racially, and economically charged context in which African-Americans and Korean storekeepers encounter each other in Los Angeles. Most immediately, such stores are widely identified as a site of interethnic conflict..."

"In this highly charged and divisive context, there is often great social incentive for individual Korean immigrant storekeepers and African-American customers to mark and maintain boundaries between each other...[E]ven when African-American customers and Korean immigrant retailers might approximate each other’s communicative conventions – resulting in more synchronous interactions – they have social incentives not to do so."

"The immediate history of relations in and around these stores as well as the larger-scale social context of inequality thus encourage African-Americans and Korean immigrants to highlight differences between each other when they meet. From this perspective, divergent patterns of communicative behavior in service encounters are not a cause of interethnic tensions, but rather a local enactment of pre-existing social conflicts..."

posted by snuffleupagus at 12:54 PM on April 7, 2018


I didn't read the paper but all that sentence says to me about Koreans is that they played into racist schema. That's explaining, not excusing. It doesn't need to explain the origins of structural racism, because all it has to do is cite other papers and say it's not in the scope of this paper to study that.

My own question about this is, positive politeness doesn't sound like politeness. It sounds like mixed signals: you're presenting yourself as chummy and friendly but you don't actually really know the person well. It reminds me of in-group social pressuring tactics. Mixed signals are problematic, no?
posted by polymodus at 12:56 PM on April 7, 2018


I enjoy discomfort. Not causing it but experiencing it. People facing me in an elevator are a perverse anthropological and self-experimentation thrill. I find it weirdly exciting that they violate this social norm and the discomfort it causes me becomes a challenge. Can I overcome it? Can I ride it out? Do I look insane if I grin and bear it?

Yes!
posted by srboisvert at 1:08 PM on April 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


polymodus: My own question about this is, positive politeness doesn't sound like politeness. It sounds like mixed signals: you're presenting yourself as chummy and friendly but you don't actually really know the person well.

Doesn't it only sound like mixed signals to you because you come from a culture where it's only polite to be chummy and friendly if you know someone well? I imagine that someone from a positive-politeness culture would interpret negative don't-impose politeness as mixed signals: Why are you pretending that you're polite when you're behaving with borderline-aggressive coldness?

I noticed - and maybe there's nothing to this - that all of the positive-politeness cultures mentioned (African American, Newfoundlander, Irish) have a history of being oppressed/enslaved/looked down on.
posted by clawsoon at 1:15 PM on April 7, 2018 [7 favorites]


There are three types of people — cat people, dog people, and people people — and they all have their own kind of politeness.

Cat people’s politeness is 1. frank honesty and 2. not expecting social effort from anyone. Whether hiding behind the couch, or sitting alone, or coming right up to you, they will not engage in or expect much in the way of entertainment unless you initiate it. If they’re bored, they’ll walk away; if they’re bothered, they’ll let you know. Some see this as cold, snooty, standoffishness, while others see it as boring as fuck, but really it’s laid-back and low-maintenance. It doesn’t take much input to get their maximum output, and indeed their main turnoff is a try-hard.

Dog people’s “politeness” is 1. entertainment and 2. universal acceptance. They will come up to you all smiles and conversation, wanting one in return. If they don’t get one, hey, no big deal, there are plenty of other people to go wag their tail at.

So then, people people, you might be thinking, must be the ideal middle ground. No. Dog people and cat people get along just fine; sometimes a cat person feels like playing, and sometimes a dog person feels like chilling. They’ll do those things together, and then they’ll go their separate ways, and they will be completely fine with that arrangement. But people people are the worst. The thing about people people is that their “politeness” is just phoniness. No matter how bored to tears they are by a dog person’s exhausting sociability or a cat person’s lack thereof, the people person will put up a front like they’re totally into it. And people people want everyone to be people people, so they put dog people on leashes and keep cat people in the house, only to constantly complain about how they’re trapped, and how they’re always scooping up others’ shit. You created this shitty situation, people person! Blame yourself! Your phony, phony self!

Of course, without the people people, all the cat people would become serial killers and all the dog people would form gangs, and the whole world would be one big pooparama. And this is all complete bullshit anyway. But I had fun writing it.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:16 PM on April 7, 2018 [58 favorites]


I have met some times the curt, impenetrable (even after many visits), short interactions with 24 hour shopkeepers. The owners could be Korean, Chinese, Moroccan or Indian immigrants depending on the country. My assumption is that it's a way to minimize chances of unpleasant racism coming from the customers.
posted by haemanu at 1:49 PM on April 7, 2018


"Horn of a bull … hoof of a horse … smile of a Saxon"
posted by haemanu at 1:57 PM on April 7, 2018 [2 favorites]


"I noticed - and maybe there's nothing to this - that all of the positive-politeness cultures mentioned (African American, Newfoundlander, Irish) have a history of being oppressed/enslaved/looked down on."

Well this is true of Southern whites as well.
posted by bookman117 at 2:03 PM on April 7, 2018


Doesn't it only sound like mixed signals to you because you come from a culture where it's only polite to be chummy and friendly if you know someone well?

I just question if it's not a bit of reductiveness or concept abuse to characterize something like West Coast *smiley* friendliness as a type of politeness dynamics. If we just say this is a different form of politeness, that's a cultural relativistic stance and makes it immune to critique. Like West Coast people do this, because of California's particular neoliberal ideology and how that interacts with performance of affective labor, or some similar contextual/historical argument. Alternatively, there's a difference between social norms and politeness and why overextend politeness to explain normative aspects that it wasn't really designed for? But this is my first time hearing about positive/negative politeness so these are just really tentative questions I'm wondering about, I'm not trying to shoot it down even if it looks that way...
posted by polymodus at 2:36 PM on April 7, 2018


I enjoy discomfort. Not causing it but experiencing it. People facing me in an elevator are a perverse anthropological and self-experimentation thrill. I find it weirdly exciting that they violate this social norm and the discomfort it causes me becomes a challenge. Can I overcome it? Can I ride it out? Do I look insane if I grin and bear it?

You're the guy who faces the wrong way in the elevator, aren't you?
posted by leotrotsky at 2:54 PM on April 7, 2018 [8 favorites]


I definitely grew up in a culture where the more pissed off I am, the more formally polite I get. And it's something of a relief to be back in my homeland where my excruciatingly polite requests in a customer service situation clue the clerk in that I'm losing my damn mind because I'm so ticked off.

When things are fine and I'm happy we just do that thing where the clerk and I thank each other five times when finishing the transaction.

I'm used to a lot of indirect communication that gives the other party a lot of face-saving opportunities as a method of politeness (I guess "negative politeness" in that schema), where you try to make your requests fairly indirect and with a clear out so that people don't feel awkwardly pressured or bad about saying no, and I don't like saying "no" directly myself. The canonical example of this in my house is I'll say, "That's not your best idea" and my kids correctly hear one of my strongest warnings and interpret it as "YOU. ARE GOING. TO LOSE. AN ARM." and my husband, who's from a different part of the US where communication is much more direct, hears, "Ooooh, she thinks it's my second-best idea!" Sometimes he's like, "If you knew it was going to go horribly wrong, why didn't you warn me?" and I'm like, "I said I thought you should maybe rethink your plan a little bit, how much more clear can I be?"
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:02 PM on April 7, 2018 [37 favorites]


After many years of steeping in East Coast culture, I once went back to a Midwestern city for a jury exercise. I have this very vivid memory of coming back to the hotel, overstressed, underslept, just wanting to get back to my room. I passed a man going through the doors into the hotel and he said, "Hi, how are you?" I was .0008 seconds from turning to him and snapping, "Why are you even talking to me?!?" before I remembered that, yes, I was in the Midwest, and he was just being polite.

Despite the unfortunate example of the Korean shopkeepers linked here, negative politeness can work well in dense urban environments where there's a lot of competition for shared resources amongst disparate groups. You take your share of space and time and no more. You don't impede the flow of processes by injecting a lot of unnecessary interaction. (While you are chit-chatting with the clerk, the line of people who in no way benefit from your cultivation of relations is building up behind you.) And you cut down the risk of giving unintentional offense by minimizing the scope of interactions.

It's also a lot easier on you when you're stressed-out and anxious and not full of social energy. Which is not to say a warmer, more engaging social interaction can't be appreciated once you actually step into the diner or whatever, but it's easier while you're making your way off the subway through the crowded streets there.
posted by praemunire at 4:42 PM on April 7, 2018 [12 favorites]


I never know how to categorize my personal ideas of politeness (positive/negative, ask/guess, etc) but I do know that after being born and raised in the NY metro area, then living in Chicago and now the west coast, I only ever get that easygoing “Hey, we’re both people and everything is well between us, what can I get for you?” interpersonal signal from cashiers & baristas and such when I’m on the east coast. It’s so hard to quantify but it’s also a very real feeling. I guess this falls into negative politeness because this feeling is only ever telegraphed. Saying all of this out loud makes me feel like “Welcome stranger” rather than “fellow person”.
posted by bleep at 8:27 PM on April 7, 2018 [3 favorites]


There's a strange jnteraction we have here known locally as the "Seattle Freeze" in which transplants to here commonly find it exasperatingly hard to develop new social networks and friendships. The interaction style appears to have social roots related to the strong ethnic presence of persons of various Scandinavian heritages in Seattle's early development.

I love the Seattle Freeze. I make plans with my best friends all the time and then mutually not keep them!
posted by loquacious at 10:06 PM on April 7, 2018 [4 favorites]


The only wrong way to face in an elevator is down.

Or possibly up.
posted by But tomorrow is another day... at 10:15 PM on April 7, 2018


having lived in different countries, i'd say: in China, you can ask anybody to do anything for you, but they can ask you to do anything for them; in Holland, you can't ask anybody to help you, but nobody can bother/interrupt/inconvenience you either. Usually, it cuts both ways but varies on this continuum. But there is another continuum: 'facial warmth' or whatever, face-to-face open-ness, chattiness, warmth, you know? Some cultures, you're open, friendly, 'vulnerable', approachable to others a lot - i'd score Wales and Thailand highest from what little i know - and in others, you're very cold/ignoring/don't interact with strangers, where i'd score Iceland and Finland high. But what greets you over the threshold isn't related to this. Holland has high warmth, but you're meant to stop abruptly at asking for help. Lots of English immigrants to Wales think the Welsh are insincere because the high warmth at face interaction doesn't indicate what it would in England (being your new best friend), it's just standard Welsh behaviour to a stranger, and i've heard similar accusations from Cold cultures about Hot ones (to use the sociological terms). But i think these two continuums are separate: you can have a warm culture without being allowed to ask for help a lot, and vice versa.
posted by maiamaia at 2:47 AM on April 8, 2018 [4 favorites]


There's a Wikipedia article I ran across years ago—“Law of Jante”:
...a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within Nordic countries that negatively portrays and criticises individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate.
It really clicked in regards to some behaviors of some of my British relatives for whom "avoiding offense" seems to be of very secondary importance when it comes to politeness.

For them, politeness seems much more a sort of protocol of manner of speech and phrasing which, when followed, categorically defines whatever you say to someone as "not rude" or as otherwise permitted by convention. Furthermore there's a whole list of things they're allowed to say to someone which can't qualify as rude if expressed properly.

I took note of the “Law of Jante” article because every single item on that list is the sort of thing you're definitely allowed to say to other people within the bounds of politeness, in this scheme.

But other British people I've met don't behave the same way, nor do most British characters depicted in media, so the conclusion I've formulated over the years is that my British relatives are just a bunch of assholes.

...On reconsideration of media portrayals, I've realized that there is one: Hyacinth Bucket. Every member of the British branch of my family is Hyacinth Bucket.

P.S.: I realize that Britain doesn't qualify as a Nordic country and is at best only sometimes part of Northern Europe.
posted by XMLicious at 3:13 AM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]


Oh, hey, how you fellas — and ladies! — doin’ there I see you’re talkin’ about manners and social convention and whatnot I gotta thing here probably won’t help you it’s not real new but in case you can use it I’ll leave it over to the side in that box sorry about the old labels I crossed ‘em out with a Sharpie it’s just some extra Minnesota Nice and I’ll swing by next Monday and pick it up if you don’t use it just leave it in the alley okay thanks you have a good one too!
posted by wenestvedt at 4:47 AM on April 8, 2018 [11 favorites]


I wish I'd understood this better seven years ago when I first moved from the east coast to the Midwest.

I come from eastern European and Mediterranean immigrants where the dominant mode of interaction is loud, affectionate, and nosy, with lots of yelling and laughter. I'd lived a lot in both the southeast and northeast and there were certain assumptions I had about human interactions:

1) If you like someone and want to be friends, you show an interest in them.
2) You show interest in people by asking them questions about themselves.
3) It's rude to only talk about yourself.

When I hate someone I am cooly polite to them, responding when spoken to and showing no interest in them. I was very taken aback when everyone I encountered in the Midwest treated me like that. I tried so hard to be friendly and I couldn't figure out why everyone I met seemed to hate me.

I thought everyone I spoke to was incredibly ill-mannered and an embarrassingly terrible conversationalist. I felt like I had to keep every conversation going singlehandedly and it was exhausting and after ten minutes I would be overwhelmed by despair because I would ask someone 10 questions about themselves and in return they would show no interest in me whatsoever.

I now understand they probably thought I was aggressively interrogating them, and rude as fuck.
posted by the turtle's teeth at 6:22 AM on April 8, 2018 [15 favorites]


This thread is changing my life. I don't know how but somehow I've internalized that asking too many questions is rude BUT talking too much about yourself is rude too. No wonder I am struggling to make friends in my flyover home.

My mom cautioned me against asking too many questions when I was a kid. "It could be they missed the picnic because of something sad or embarrassing! Don't ask them about it!" When I call my mom she asks me what's new and I say "not much" (which to me is just an invitation to be asked something else) and she takes me at my word and just starts talking. I listen and ask questions and feel so hurt and unloved that she doesn't ask me any questions back. Now I know - she grew up in a midwestern state. She's waiting for me to launch in with my own sharing. I've been assuming it would be self-centered and rude to do that without being asked.

I spent some time on the East coast and was fascinated by my friends there who asked a lot of questions, sometimes quite intimate, and the things that people would happily reveal. Many of the same friends were also people for whom love means - apparently - freely offering advice (but you don't *have* to take the advice, they'd say, completely perplexed, when I found it rude).
posted by bunderful at 6:42 AM on April 8, 2018 [4 favorites]


We're talking about this as if it were like an interesting cool thing to note, like "hey look at this butterfly, what do you think its name is?" ... but I've had important relationships go badly awry around this sort of simple misunderstanding about how to act polite, and where the boundaries are around intimacy, and the difference between simple friendliness and basic courtesy and a heart connection, or a material promise.

Once when I was a carpenter there was a donut out on the ground and I winged an eight penny nail at it from the ladder and I stuck that nail in that donut. I tried dozens of times after that and I couldn't even get close to that donut. Once when I was a kid I threw a rock at a bird, never imagining that I could even get close enough to hit a bird with a rock, and I hit that bird and crippled it. Throwing the rock at the bird was not my best idea. I've had the same thing happen with words. My point is that having no idea and having average luck and just doing whatever can bring fortune or tragedy.

Manners aren't everything in a relationship. But God, it would be good if you could know before you say a thing, just where those words would land.
posted by Beginner's Mind at 6:57 AM on April 8, 2018 [9 favorites]


why did you murder that donut
posted by poffin boffin at 7:06 AM on April 8, 2018 [8 favorites]


I find most social interaction exhausting because my preferred mode is silence but that's rude so I focus on the other person intently to figure out, do they want me to ask about their dog or spouse, or return a compliment ( I am very bad at this) or what. I wish all interaction took place in writing.
posted by emjaybee at 7:59 AM on April 8, 2018


The Cambodian (and Thai) smile is a pretty great example of these cultural politeness differences. It’s infamously interpreted by Western foreigners as a sign that These Are a Naturally Happy and Jolly People when there’s actually much more meaning there.

The same Westerners are regularly horrified by how some Cambodians smile and laugh while dealing with a horrible situation, or when they are talking about something tragic. This is done because many Cambodians consider it rather impolite to show negative emotions in public.

Westerners who encounter this behavior often interpret it as a sign that Cambodians are intrinsically callous or cruel: thus leading to a lot of really boring travel blog posts where the author indignantly reveals the SUPPOSEDLY GENUINE Khmer smile is ACTUALLY A HIDEOUS LIE.

Well, no, it’s just a different mode of politeness that you couldn’t be bothered to interpret.
posted by faineg at 8:29 AM on April 8, 2018 [7 favorites]


...a pattern of group behaviour towards individuals within Nordic countries that negatively portrays and criticises individual success and achievement as unworthy and inappropriate.

It really clicked in regards to some behaviors of some of my British relatives for whom "avoiding offense" seems to be of very secondary importance when it comes to politeness.


Tall poppy syndrome
posted by leotrotsky at 8:56 AM on April 8, 2018


But other British people I've met don't behave the same way, nor do most British characters depicted in media, so the conclusion I've formulated over the years is that my British relatives are just a bunch of assholes.

Oh, no, there are definitely many English people who behave this way. In my anecdotal experience, it's a habit primarily found among people of higher social status. A terrible tone, too--as if they're really quite taken aback that you would say such a thing, but out of vague pity will respond in some wise. American styles of interaction definitely tend to elicit this mode of response.

I fell in love with Sherlock's Mycroft Holmes because he's just such an intense version of this that he somehow comes back around to being adorable.
posted by praemunire at 9:23 AM on April 8, 2018


praemunire: as if they're really quite taken aback that you would say such a thing, but out of vague pity will respond in some wise.

Rules of politeness would have to include what you're allowed to do when someone else violates them. Do you have to stick to the normal rules of politeness, or can you engage a second set of rules which allow you to say a certain set of things that would be impolite if you started it but are acceptable if you're disciplining someone else's violations?
posted by clawsoon at 11:16 AM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


Tall poppy syndrome

Yeah, there's a link to that at the bottom of the Law of Jante article, but I think resentment or admonishment of people who are genuinely intrinsically exceptional in some way is only a small part of it. If you look at
5. You're not to think you know more than we do.
as an example: I'll be making some general statement or an "I just read this interesting thing in the paper" cocktail-party-anecdote type comment, and they'll interrupt me before I've said more than a few words to assure me that they know what I'm talking about and they know what I'm going to say, when... they just clearly from the course of further conversation didn't know what I was talking about, not at all. Apparently-pointlessly interrupting other people like that is somehow a conventional interaction in conversation, at least if you're interrupting for the sake of expressing one of these particular Law-of-Jante-like sentiments: they cheerfully do it to each other, too.

Sometimes it's a Hyacinth Bucket sort of contradiction, where they're talking over me to relate something they portray as a more accurate or insightful version of whatever they thought I was going to say... but it doesn't even have to be that. Strident and imposing assertion of "I already knew that", whether it's true or relevant or not, is just one of these things which is green-lighted as within the bounds of polite behavior, regardless of the circumstances.
posted by XMLicious at 11:51 AM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


Jantesplaining?
posted by clawsoon at 11:54 AM on April 8, 2018 [1 favorite]


I've lived mostly in Seattle since I was a kid and the "Seattle Freeze" makes no sense to me -- I have conversations with strangers in public all the time. They're just never about ourselves; either something we're looking at, or local news, or some anorak interest one or the other of us has. (Being in public in Seattle half-presupposes an anorak, but the cultural reference applies, too.) I've been trading scribbled names of "I like this cool thing, maybe you would too" for decades. Jazz, boatbuilding, trail-fixing, good tiny restaurants, polka, wevs.

The Midwest and South make me feel like I'm being interrogated for my exact social station, and NYC feels like everyone is playing NYC on stage (usually a lot of fun).
posted by clew at 11:54 AM on April 8, 2018 [2 favorites]


This is really interesting.

As a white guy who grew up in California and now lives in a part of the industrial midwest where most service workers and many business owners are African American, I constantly have to guard against my natural reaction to business encounters. When someone you don't know asks you about your weekend, my natural assumption is that it's a scam artist trying to get something out of you. I know it's just the way ordinary people talk around here and that I'm the weird outsider. I try to behave appropriately. But, it still feels incredibly strange to hear stories about the grandkids of the person who's selling me cheese. I'm sure they find my responses stilted and unpleasant despite my best efforts.

The references to being watched in stores, though, strikes me as a very different thing that may be less easily written off as simple miscommunication.
posted by eotvos at 12:19 PM on April 8, 2018


on a tangent, I just had one of the semi-regular interactions with my wife where we end up blinking at one another in mutual incomprehension - she often expresses her intent and planned activities by asking me if I myself intend to do the planned thing that she is going to do ("are you thinking about walking the dog?"), and I quite reliably simply answer the question directly, as asked ("no I am not thinking about walking the dog"). Thankfully we both recognize the interaction as not actually being a provocation, but it has taken years.

She is first-generation Cuban Californian and so her familial interaction training is expressive of Cuban cultural norms, while mine is expressive of German and Anglo Pacific Northwesterners. This would appear to be a conflict of politeness style as suggested in the thread head.

One of the interaction difficulties we have successfully navigated, mostly, is that our socialization has trained us to have nearly completely divergent expectations concerning the utility, proper use of, and practice of apologizing.

In her family, apologies are an intensely shameful thing, something that one struggles to give only in extremis and often after loud expressions of emotional intensity. In my family, apologies flow like water and sometimes they don't actually mean what they say. Sometimes I apologize to inanimate objects.

It's not quite like the British apology ("Sorry, but") in that more often than not an apology is deployed specifically to take responsibility for a social error or missed chore ("I am sorry that I forgot to take out the trash") than as a method of indirect social-behavior correction.

So of course that has lead to numerous stressful but hilarious misunderstandings over the years. She's allowed to tell me to shut my trap if a fake apology is emanating from it and I am allowed to insist that she should apologize for something when it's apparent that she should.

What's interesting about this in the context of this thread is that I have absolutely no difficulty apologizing immediately if someone requests it, even if I have no idea what it is that I might be apologizing for. Often I'll try to get an explanation of what it is that I am apologizing for, but if they don't want to tell me, no bigs. For my wife, it's really emotionally difficult to issue one!

It's a wonder we've been together for so long.
posted by mwhybark at 1:20 PM on April 8, 2018 [5 favorites]


Rules of politeness would have to include what you're allowed to do when someone else violates them. Do you have to stick to the normal rules of politeness, or can you engage a second set of rules which allow you to say a certain set of things that would be impolite if you started it but are acceptable if you're disciplining someone else's violations?

If you choose to continue playing the game by the same set of meta-rules (there's always the option of busting out and going American), you are largely locked into the same norms. Everyone remains glacially condescending until the encounter terminates.
posted by praemunire at 9:05 PM on April 8, 2018


I have a theory that crowding/population density plays a part in this. There's definitely a variation within England - in the North and west of England the warm friendly open type politeness is the default whereas in the South East and especially London the default politeness is to keep a (metaphorical) distance and leave people alone, leading to a perception by Northerners that Southerners are unfriendly and unwelcoming. Scotland and Wales are also more open/friendly model.

My theory is that the population density is part of it stems from the fact that in a densely populated area its difficult/impossible to get away from other people. Your neighbours hear and see your comings and goings and even what happens inside your home if it doesn't have good sound insulation. While commuting on busy transit systems we're sometimes literally rammed up against each other. The polite thing therefore becomes to try and create an illusion of space where there is none, a polite fiction that we don't all know each other's business and give people leeway to only share what they choose to. In areas where people don't *have* to share space it becomes polite to welcome people into your space as you cross paths and show an interest in their lives.

This of course doesn't explain Minnesota although as that seems to stem from culture inherited from Scandinavian immigration perhaps the ares those immigrants came from were densely populated.
posted by *becca* at 6:25 AM on April 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


*becca*: My theory is that the population density is part of it stems from the fact that in a densely populated area its difficult/impossible to get away from other people.

I'd offer a subtle variation on that: I think the rules vary by whether someone is a stranger, or is an acquaintance. In a low-density area, strangers tend to be rare, so it's okay to be curious and friendly with them. Acquaintances who aren't friends are the ones who you're polite to by not imposing on them. In a high-density area, strangers are constant and overwhelming, as you say, so politeness means not imposing on them. Acquaintances, however, are seen more rarely, so it's more polite to warmly greet someone you barely know when you see them on the streetcar.

Or, as one small-town Newfoundlander put it to me, "At home, you're looking for someone new. In the city, you're looking for people you know."
posted by clawsoon at 7:02 AM on April 9, 2018 [5 favorites]


If you choose to continue playing the game by the same set of meta-rules (there's always the option of busting out and going American), you are largely locked into the same norms. Everyone remains glacially condescending until the encounter terminates.

I SAID GOOD DAY, SIR
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:59 AM on April 9, 2018 [3 favorites]


I have occasions when I experience severe dysthymia but for whatever reason I still need to function socially. In those cases I default down to an autopilot level of politeness that's essentially New England bland (mirror social advances in kind but do not initiate or encourage continuance, say please and thank you, don't mumble, keep volume just high enough to be clearly audible, do not show impatience...) To my mind, I'm being rather cold, borderline rude even, as I'm generally not smiling or expressing concern for other people. I've had a few people who encountered me in that mode comment how polite I am. It baffles me that "dead inside" reads as "super polite", until I account for the high-population thing about giving people as much space as possible.
posted by Karmakaze at 10:28 AM on April 9, 2018 [6 favorites]


My husband just pointed out another "escalating politeness" that I do all the time. When my kids have said something rude or inappropriate or mean ("This dinner is garbage!"), I say, ultra-politely, "I beg your pardon?" and they FREEZE and say, "I meant, um, I don't really like lasagna, could I have something else when you're done eating?"

They absolutely know that when I escalate politeness levels to "I beg your pardon?" they're in deep shit.

If mom's arguing or even raising her voice, they're fine, but when mom escalates to extreme politeness, the shit has hit the fan.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:34 PM on April 9, 2018 [4 favorites]


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