We know the importance of being earnest; what is the importance of being polite?
Imagine getting to Greggs on a day like many others, tired and longing for something to snack on, and there you see it: the last sausage roll. It is calling you from behind the counter, you can’t wait. But there are two people already queuing before you. Will one of them buy it before you can? You don’t want to take chances. So you step forward, you cut the line, maybe you even slightly push one of your competitors out of the way to reach the counter. You won. Except you did not. Someone – most likely the person that you pushed a moment ago – grabs your shoulder and shoves you aside to make their own way forward. It is an open competition now, others join in. It quickly escalates into a giant fight for supremacy, while those who do not feel competitive run out of the shop to secure a safe distance from the overflying chair’s trajectory.
Similar scenarios would be commonplace if the vast majority of us did not choose daily to stick to social norms instead of following instinct, even at the cost of letting go when others are rude or inconsiderate. This is why, instead of acting on our first impulses towards the annoying people chattering at the cinema or the slow walkers placidly zig-zagging their way on University Avenue, we end up ranting about it on Twitter. We are socialised to maintain a façade of politeness, and rightly so. For social beings having to manage interactions with other people, politeness is an essential skill to navigate the world. Acting politely basically means to fulfil our social obligation not to cause harm to others. This is something very different from kindness, which is instead a natural individual disposition to actively benefit other people (say by leaving the last sausage roll for the person queuing behind us). While politeness has to do with dutifulness and courtesy, kindness has to do with spontaneity and empathy. Both are necessary: if politeness keeps the world in order, kindness makes it a brighter place.
Acknowledging the importance of politeness and the value of kindness, however, should not allow us to forget that self-love and self-respect are also fundamental virtues. Sometimes, I have the impression that society does not look favourably at me standing up for myself. During my school years, teachers scolded me more than once because I would not accept any form of abuse from my peers. While boys were somehow justified in their reactions to perceived unfairness, I was expected to keep my temper, to be nice, to be a good girl. In my experience, femininity is linked not simply to politeness, but to agreeability, that is a non-threatening and passive attitude towards received roles and social hierarchies. The flip side of the coin is the unpleasant image of the “nasty woman”, essentially a post-modern rebranding of the “wicked witch”. This gendered dimension of politeness plays an important part in the narrative of female victimhood in a society that is still widely unsafe. For instance, the true crime podcast My Favourite Murder, hosted by two women and well-known for having a largely female fanbase, has popularised the slogan “fuck politeness”, encouraging women to seriously consider how feeling obliged to be polite at all costs, despite their instinct suggesting otherwise, can put them in harm’s way.
So, should we ditch politeness and kindness because we live in a dangerous world? Personally, I think that the “fuck politeness” narrative is very simplistic and has the problematic trait of putting the burden of safety on the possible victim rather than on the possible perpetrator of violent crime. However, it offers an interesting bottom line: personal safety and self-love are not a fair price to pay for social approval. Sure, we must be polite, and we can be kind, but self-defence in the face of abuse is another skill worth developing. This is not meant to encourage anyone to put themselves in dangerous positions. Even walking away from an uncomfortable situation rather than staying and smiling in the hope that it will not escalate can be an impolite act of self-preservation. The real revolution is to start regarding firmness and self-determination as virtues to praise and cultivate. After all, the first person you owe kindness and care to is yourself.