Feminism, Etiquette, and Being Fake

Instead of answering a question this week (but send us questions! info@uncommon-courtesy.com) we read this article on Jezebel It’s Not Fake to be Polite: A Defense of Etiquette and ended up having a long conversation about etiquette, feminism, being fake, tone of voice, and, strangely, cherry cordial.

Victoria: So this defense of etiquette on Jezebel, says that a lot of people think that being polite means being fake.

Jaya: Yeah, I think people keep mistaking etiquette for being nice at all costs. Like, people etiquette themselves into a box, thinking that they need to be polite no matter what people around them are doing.

Victoria: I obviously completely disagree that politeness is fakeness. There’s a reason why etiquette is called a social lubricant (Is it? Did I make that up?), because it helps society to function smoothly. There’s literally no benefit to pushing past people and being rude and yelling, because once everyone starts doing it, you have mass chaos. So actually, in sum, I think her main point in this post, is totally true. Especially the last paragraph.

Jaya: I think politeness is only fakeness when you’re using it to lie about something. Now, there’s a difference between “I’m not gonna call this person out because I just don’t want to get into it” and “I can never tell this person how rude they’re being because then I’ll be rude,” and it’s bad when it’s the second one, but I don’t begrudge anyone for just being like “ugh I’m tired and this isn’t worth it.”

Victoria: So then there’s the issue of assuming that being polite is part of being a woman and women especially “etiquette themselves into a box,” as you said. And in the Jezebel post, the example they give about Nicki Minaj about how Lil’ Wayne will just come in and treat everyone like crap and its fine. But when she does it, she’s a bitch….I see the problem more that Lil’ Wayne treats people terribly and gets away with it. The moral is that we shouldn’t find equality by it being okay for Nicki to treat people like crap but they should both be treating the people they work with with respect and consideration, you know?

Jaya: Omg yes! I was thinking about this the other day. There was this great post about how “life hacks” are often just signs of privilege. Like, this white dude wrote a post about “life hacks,” and how you can usually get what you want if you’re assertive and ask for things that aren’t advertised. But really, you think a black guy is gonna be able to walk into a restaurant and demand things the same way as a white guy? Unfortunately no, that’s not how this works. There are many instances where it does become a point of privilege, so it’s better and more equal for everyone if we all just follow some rules.

And yeah, I think a lot of times the women v. men thing is people assuming men do things better because men have traditionally been the more successful, and it was a part of a different wave of feminism to just try to be men to beat them at their own game, instead of changing the game to be more accepting of varied ways of decision making and social interaction. There was also a piece on the Hairpin about Nicki Minaj and Rihanna, where Nicki Minaj is all about playing the same game as men, whereas Rihanna tends to just bypass all of that and do her own thing. I think both ways of doing things can be valid for women, but I guess personally my feminism isn’t about trying to be successful by emulating men all the time.

Victoria Yes, and then in the Nicki Minaj example, why is Lil’ Wayne able to get away with being that rude and terrible at all? That shouldn’t be what people are striving to be.

Jaya:  Exactly! It’s just like, people in power are often assholes, so everyone thinks you need to be an asshole to be powerful. There shouldn’t be a double standard there. Nicki shouldn’t be treated as a bitch while Lil Wayne is respected.

Victoria Yeah, which is terrible. I read Lean In recently, and she was talking a lot about how “men do things like this and women do things like that,” and she was really encouraging women to do things the “male way” because that is currently regarded as the more successful way. But it occurred to me that maybe things would run more smoothly if everyone switched to the more “female way.”

Jaya:  I think that’s the conventionally accepted idea, that to be successful you have to do it the “male way.” Women communicate and listen, but men demand what they want, and both can be useful sometimes. Doing everything all one way or all another probably doesn’t help. But in general women are taught, indirectly, that it’s rude to ask for things. That asking = demanding, and demanding is bad.

Victoria: I was reading ANOTHER thing, on The Billfold, about how this grad program typically gives out $500 to students for travel, but will give more if the student asks and it was always the men who ask for more—assuming that any rules or caps on funds would be bent for them. And a) obviously more transparency about the whole process would be better and b) if there are rules, some segments of the population shouldn’t just assume they can break those rules, and the rule makers need to uphold the rules that they make.

Jaya:  Yeah, and that’s also insane that something like that wouldn’t be standardized or at least transparent enough for everyone to know what they should ask for.

Victoria Yeah, exactly. That’s why I like etiquette as a set of rules, at least you can see what the playing field is and what’s supposed to be going on.

Jaya:  Totally, and yes, break them thoughtfully if you need. But it at least reminds you that there are needs out there besides your own.

Victoria: I was thinking coming home tonight about how at some point you have to assert yourself even if you then become less polite when people aren’t following the rules. For example, a response to our laundry post was to NEVER touch someone’s laundry EVER. And like, yeah, that’s why I give a little buffer and I REALLY hate doing it, but what happens when you’ve got two washers and dryers for 8 apartments and someone literally leaves their clothes sitting there for 5, 6, 7, 8 whatever hours? Do you just meekly keep checking every hour and being “polite” or do you say, hey, they are breaking the rules and I need to do my laundry and they have had plenty of time to come get their stuff, but they haven’t so now I am going to move their stuff?

Jaya: Right.

Victoria: Another example I thought of was the men taking up too much space on the subway thing. l totally think its polite to ask someone to close their legs so you can sit in the spot they are blocking. Be assertive but polite.

Jaya:  Yeah! Like, don’t outwardly shame them, just ask for them to move their legs or their purse and then they gently know to be aware of it in the future.

Victoria But the whole, privileged rule breaking thing would be to ask someone who is just sitting in a seat to get up and move so you can sit down (assuming you have no injuries or NEED to sit etc). That’s the difference I think, between being assertive and just being rude.

Jaya: Yeah, etiquette is a balance. You weigh your needs against the needs of others. Your needs will not win out 100% of the time, but you also can’t ignore your own needs.

Victoria EXACTLY. So let’s talk about vocal tone a little, you were telling me something about it the other day. How do you think tone relates to etiquette?

Jaya:  Well, part of etiquette is reading situations, I think, and learning to communicate well.

Victoria:  Totally.

Jaya:  And I think a good part of that involves reading tones. For instance, I was at a party a while back and this one girl was just being really anti-social. So initially, I tried to make an effort to engage her in conversation, thinking she might be shy or something. But it became apparent very quickly that she was angry at something and wanted to be left alone. Even though she never said anything to that effect, you could just tell she was angry (later I found out what she was mad about and it was really dumb but whatever).

Victoria Hahahahaha

Jaya:  But yeah it’s like, I knew to back off because to continue to try to talk to her would probably make it worse.

Victoria Right, I think that’s a more subtle part of being polite and following etiquette. Like, advanced etiquette and social relations, a graduate level course.

Jaya:  Hahaha yeah, I am very advanced. I am perfect at reading tone always.

Victoria:  Riiight.

Jaya: Though instead of an etiquette thing, I think it has more to do with our idea that speaking like a “girl” is somehow an insult. This is a good description of that . This has actually been an interesting topic when my fiance and I have gotten into fights. Because sometimes one of us will say something or do something with a mean or sarcastic tone, and that’s what the other one reacts to, instead of what we’re actually saying or doing. So at first I was like “you need to listen to what I’m saying, not my tone,” but then I realized that’s impossible, because how you say things is so tied into what you’re saying. Isn’t that an Eddie Izzard bit? (Ed: Yes).

I think the issue with some things is that people focus on superficial tone things rather than “real” tones, for lack of a better term. Like, the teenage girl thing. It’s something we’ve invented that assumes talking with many of the affectations of a young girl means you’re stupid or uneducated. What we don’t invent is the tones when people are angry, scared, bored, etc. People aren’t signaling deeper feelings when they use slang, but they are with the overall tone of their voice, and I think part of being a polite and considerate person is trying to tune into that. However, there’s nothing worse than someone trying to tell you how you feel in a conversation, so even if you get the sense that someone is angry when what they’re saying doesn’t match the tone, don’t try to tell them they’re really angry unless they hint at it first.

Victoria: That’s really interesting. I think if your tone doesn’t match your words, that’s when we end up with this etiquette=fakeness thing. Because it basically comes down to, yeah, maybe being polite is a LITTLE fake on occasion, but would you rather someone say something really terrible to you or just nicely let you get on your way?

Jaya:  Yess.

Victoria Or like, maybe you eat in a really gross manner alone, but do you really want to watch someone ELSE do it in front of you? So you shouldn’t do it in front of them either.

Jaya:  Hahahaha, exactly. Like, if everyone just did 100% what they wanted at any moment all day long, it’d be a nightmare.

Victoria:  And I think you see how it would be without etiquette in the comments section of a lot of websites, where people just go nuts and don’t treat each other with any respect like they would if they were talking in person.

Jaya:  I think that obviously there are times where your needs come first. Where you need to speak up about something but sometimes it’s like, just let something slide, it’ll be easier for everyone involved. And there’s no great way to figure out which is which. Also some people think anyone who is naturally polite is going to be a martyr about it or something.

Victoria Yeah, which is ridiculous. Like I said, obviously I am pretty polite and have this etiquette blog, but I am certainly very forceful about my rights on the subway (ahhh I am going to get murdered for this someday, probably). We are also constantly telling people, right after we say we write an etiquette blog, that we aren’t the politeness police and don’t really care what they do.

Jaya:  Ultimately it’s not like anyone is greatly harmed by most of this. Besides if someone is being outwardly racist/sexist/otherwise offensive and no one calls them out, but if you chew with your mouth open that really does not affect me besides maybe grossing me out for 30 seconds. But if you encounter a hundred people who all chew with their mouths open and lean on subway poles and cut in line, your day is gonna suck.

Victoria: Yes! Exactly!

Jaya: I think being polite is fake only when you feel like your personal needs are being needlessly ignored, and yet you don’t say anything in the name of being “polite.”

Victoria Or when you are just actually being fake- like I’m imagining a situation where you are at a party and continue to introduce people to, or bring drinks to, or otherwise be nice to someone you don’t like while you are saying mean things behind their back. When you could just politely greet them and then ignore them and not talk about them behind their back.

Jaya:  Yessssss, being polite doesn’t mean you have to act like best friends with everyone.

Victoria Yeah, just be, you know, cordial.

Jaya:  We’re all adults, and we don’t all love each other, and that’s fine.

Victoria I like the word cordial.

Jaya:  Haha me too, like cherries.

Victoria:  It’s like, being the bare minimum of polite for social acceptance.

Jaya:  I mean sometimes you are forced to interact with someone you don’t like but there’s a difference between being nice and pretending they’re your favorite. And that’s the difference between actual politeness and being fake.