Before I catch any flack for this, allow me to acknowledge that this post’s title is potentially offensive and overly-generalized. And let me follow that up by informing you that that was entirely my point.
You see, for some time now, I’ve had this theory floating around my head. It started a couple months ago when I had a communication issue with one of my best friends. We were having an argument because I had been hurt by an action he had taken, despite having given him what I felt were sufficient implications that I wanted him to do something different.
His very correct point was that it was not fair for me to imply something and then hold him to reading those implications accurately. Very simply- if I want to ensure that someone understands what I want and need, I need to explain those things as clearly as possible.
Upon hearing this, I took a moment to figure out why I felt the need to imply my feelings instead of clearly state them in the first place. I realized that when there are other people involved, it feels very rude for me to just bluntly state what I feel without considering anyone else. Maybe I’ll seem selfish. Maybe they won’t like what I have to say. Maybe it will hurt their feelings. Maybe I’ll seem too confrontational. If I don’t appear open to their feelings, maybe they’ll feel obligated to comply to my wishes! I certainly don’t want any of this to happen.
So instead of sounding forceful, I try to hint at what I’m feeling. This way they get an idea, while hopefully: A) giving them the feeling that they have the freedom to choose for themselves, making sure that they feel no pressure to do what I want, or B) I didn’t hurt their feelings too much or make them angry by telling them something they don’t like.
The wheels started spinning in my head. While this felt like the most considerate, un-selfish form of communicating, it was also extremely ineffective and created problems like my friend and I were now having. So maybe it’s not the best way to deal with things after all. Yet, why had I come to utilize this act of passive-aggressive, insufficient means of communication in the first place? I didn’t know.
I began to think about people in our culture who did not have this problem. I thought about my friends, my family, people on television and in day-to-day life that I’ve come into contact with. Strange as it may sound, I resolved through my own perception that your average “Middle-Class White American” is a more prevalent culprit of this communication issue than anyone else I could think of.
It seemed so odd to me that the simple act of being direct felt selfish, or rude, or mean. Is it not more rude- is it not much meaner- to confuse the $h!t out of everyone? I realized that because so many of those around me felt inhibited by these same ideas, we all have learned to read implications, hint at things, and dance around each other’s wants and needs while still trying to satisfy ourselves and our friends. Wouldn’t it be simpler if we could all just speak up?
Think about the people you know who do this easily: not only do they get what they want more often, but they save the rest of us all the trouble and effort of trying to figure out what they want! They don’t need to be rude or unkind- they just confront us with what they’re thinking.
The other day I picked up an old favorite book of mine, “Little Women” by Louisa May Alcott, and there was the answer, staring at me:
Laurie opened his mouth to ask another question; but remembering just in time that it wasn’t manners to make too many inquiries into people’s affairs, he shut it again…
While there are so many reasons a person could choose to be passive-aggressive (vulnerability issues, “trying to be nice”), could it also be that the last few centuries’ stress on being prim and proper in Eastern Europe has affected the way we communicate here in America today?
In this short passage, the character Laurie wanted to ask his friend Jo about her life. I imagine that youth in 19th century New England (when and where the book takes place) had been in positions similar to the one mentioned here, and either settled upon not speaking their true minds, or invented ways to work around this “rudeness”- similar to what I do, myself- in order get their points across somehow.
The judgments that come from being impolite include what I listed above- like appearing uncivilized or selfish. It’s possible, to me, that fear of these judgments have stifled our ability to confront situations that do not need to be as complicated as we make them out to be.
Many cultures and societies throughout history have come up with their own definitions of etiquette. In some cultures it may be considered rude or too forward to greet a person with a kiss on the lips upon first meeting them, while in others not doing so may be seen as cold and unwelcoming. These traditions fall into place over long periods of time for an array of reasons. We see these differences in other cultures around the world, and we also notice them here in our “melting pot” homeland.
Some forms of etiquette that have been passed down in our culture, like “please” and “thank-you”, are good ways to show respect and appreciation for others, and I personally condone the use of them.
This other form of etiquette- this “trying-to-politely-speak-your-true-mind-by-being-indirect”, needs to be abolished. I understand that this is a tradition which has somehow survived to this point, but I have learned in my own life that clear communication is worth a lot more than worrying about how it could be received.
Discovering this concept, I made a decision. Henceforth, if what I say when I speak my mind crosses boundaries or is very offensive, I welcome that feedback so I may clarify or apologize. Without feedback, I will be satisfied with having said what I felt, no longer stressing too much about its possible interpretations. I do not care to keep the people around me guessing or wondering, and I do not care to be caught up guessing or wondering about their feelings or ideas without confronting them either.
This, in my opinion, is what true consideration for others- and true etiquette- actually looks like.