Who isn’t polite?
- The child with her brother
- The teacher to his class – what can the kids do about it?
- Construction workers on their break, to the anonymous pretty woman walking past
- Anyone in the middle of a quarrel
- A toddler with her mum
Who is polite?
- The job candidate in her interview
- The political candidate, to undecided voters
- The boyfriend with his potential in-laws
- The driver that the policemen think may be over the limit
- Posh people
- The un-posh, knowing that in this pub the odds of the cheerful stranger turning suddenly violent are not negligible
- The toddler who’s just been caught whacking the other toddler over the head with a plastic brick
Just a few examples.
We’re polite when there’s a lot at stake. The boyfriend cares about his future with this girl; the driver wants to keep his licence; the un-posh want to keep all their teeth. (What’s at stake for posh people? Their poshness. Forget their manners, and they will be seen as vulgar. Worse than a prison record.)
When there’s less to be frightened about, people are less careful to be polite. The child knows her brother will still be her brother whatever name she calls him. To the builders, what their mates think matters more than what the woman thinks. In the heat of a row, putting your point across or intimidating the other person is more important than your reputation.
The toddler knows Mum is safe to be cheeky to. Until Mum’s cross. Just think what’s at stake: more than the opinion of the voting public, more than income, more than the possibility of appearing ridiculous. The toddler lives in Now, not Overall – and if Mum isn’t happy with her now, that’s the whole of her life. So much more that looking silly. Think of it.
OK, so in my Attenborough attitude to how people behave, i haven’t addressed whether there’s something wrong with being polite only when it counts. Only? I haven’t addressed whether it is only then. This wasn’t ethics, this was social psychology. Hope you can cope.
One day i’ll consider what politeness is. May come out with something a little deeper than this.