I’m a polite person. And before you disagree let me preface it by saying that I’m a polite person under most circumstances. I’m hoping that has been your experience with me. And I hope you didn’t think I was sucking up to you, or kissing your ass, or trying to lube you up, or trying to get on your good side or shimmying up, or licking your boots or stroking your ego. I hope you remember me as a genuinely polite person who was being polite without any ulterior motive or without any weak personality traits like lack of a spine or the inability to confront my offenders.
Because my politeness has been construed like that. In a world where confidence is sometimes taught to resemble snark, politeness is usually reserved as a quality that would only be used with individuals who are clearly at a disadvantage compared to us. Its expression is limited to social situations where we want to exhibit benevolence, sanctimoniousness and privilege without looking like we enjoy privilege.
But what is politeness to me? Because, believe it or not, politeness can be a very relative thing. As someone who spent four transformational years in NYC, I didn’t find New Yorkers as notoriously impolite as they’re rumored to be. They actually were very similar in their abrupt but outrageously friendly nature like folks in Karachi.
Politeness for me is, first of all, removal of arrogance. Arrogance and politeness can’t go hand in hand. You can’t make that combination work.
Secondly, politeness is making the other person feel comfortable. Believe me, this opens communication. Leadership has many qualities but effective means of communication is definitely one of them. Imagine the ineffectiveness of a leader if the people they lead can’t open up to them. That’s not leadership. That’s actually probably more like a form of dictatorship. A leader’s foremost job is to inspire but when people can’t talk to you or ask you questions, there is no potential for any inspiration to happen.
Thirdly, politeness isn’t ass kissing. Someone met me once and said ” Do you never get angry?”. Now you can tell that this woman isn’t married to me otherwise she would’ve known that I get angry like all normal people. I can get upset and might I add, very unreasonably too sometimes? But just because I don’t show my anger in public or with most people, the assumption is that I’m a hopelessly polite person. Like a hopeless romantic. That even if I get dumped by the same guy ten times, I’d run to him if he called. That isn’t my particular brand of politeness. Do I stay away from incisive comments and confrontations? Yes. But can I assert my point politely? Yes. Politeness can be practiced under all emotional circumstances.
But politeness asks for a little bit of practice if you truly don’t want it to come across as sucking up to someone. Politeness should be practiced as we practice self-control. The one thing about it is that it can actually become a universal principle of our personalities. It can actually become a staple of our presence. When you’ve achieved that, you’re golden.
But…. before you think that this is a quality that we can practice with any degree of insincerity then you’re wrong. Politeness is pure and without a motive. Politeness is an exercise in knowing that we are all equals and we have no right to be rude or mean to anyone. Even to people who seemingly don’t deserve the softness of our personality. Politeness is a compulsory trait. Someone told me once that rudeness is a moral problem and politeness is a moral win. This has stuck with me and has helped to change my impulsivity in stressful situations a lot.
and lastly, again coming full circle, here is where I think Muslim women and particularly Pakistani women have been taught the wrong class on politeness. We’ve been told that it’s a form of giving up our voice. That if we speak up our opinion, we aren’t polite anymore. We are socially inappropriate if we tell someone that we disagree with them. Politeness is taught as a form of survival skill and it is not a survival skill at all. It is a very grounding, mature quality. It is anything but a weakness. It’s actually the strength to be soft and kind with our words even if the situation would rather cause us to scream.
Don’t learn the lesson of politeness that patriarchy and oppression give us. That’s garbage in its essence. Rather………
Learn to be polite but firm. Learn to be firm but reasonable. Learn to be reasonable but flexible. Learn to be flexible but with a conviction in your principles. Learn to have that conviction with the knowledge that people will disagree and you can disagree too. And the fact that you disagree isn’t a reflection on your character. It is how you disagree that is ultimately defining you.