It’s a sign of how much I’ve grown that I am actually writing a post advocating politeness. As a child, adolescent and young adult, bluntness was my trademark. Because I prized honesty as a virtue, I believed in telling it like it is. To some extent, I still do. But I have learnt to curb my tongue and hold my peace. I’ve learnt that some things – many things – serve no purpose by being said in person, except to hurt other people. I have learnt to weigh my words.
I distinctly remember proudly telling my sister-in-law and her husband how I tell people what I think of them. I was unpleasantly surprised when I realised they were practicing this on me. I also realised that I had never been quite so blunt. That I might speak my mind to people whom I care about and who I assume I have an established bedrock of trust with but to people outside that inner circle, I am fairly circumspect. I might point things out but I never did use my tongue to lash out that much.
Living in Hong Kong has taught me to be even more diplomatic because that is a Chinese quality. You have to give people a way to save face and while this might involve a bit of looping around in circles, it is an art that is essentially kind. I am no master of it but it has helped me think because I speak.
Surprisingly, Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman (an awesome book, everyone should read it) advocates politeness too. She points out that many sexist statements and behaviours would just not be acceptable under normal social circumstances. One can call out misogynists simply on grounds of rudeness. She advocates that people be nice.
I agree. For all my edges, I realise I’m nice. Too nice even. I cannot turn a salesperson away, for example. Everyone in my immediate family is nice. Among my parents, sister and I, I am the least nice so you can imagine. V taught me to me to put myself first sometimes, to say what I want and to not care. I had always thought I was an expert non-carer. Turns out, I had some distance to go. But I have realised it’s a fine line between standing your ground with good reason and being an asshole who is selfish and I am experimenting with that line.
Recently, I attended an academic talk where a visiting writer from India described Hong Kong as “one big shopping mall”. This was not meant as a compliment. Although Hong Kongers are used to people saying this – they say it themselves – I still thought it was rude (and frankly quite a boring cliché at that). Why does one thing that it’s okay to visit a city and the first thing one says to the residents of that place, without so much as a positive preamble, is negative? I also used to be one of those people that went to developed countries and scoured the landscape for flaws but now I see it for the churlishness it conveys. Just because it’s a first world country doesn’t mean its residents don’t have feelings.
When I look closely at people who are rude, I see their insecurities. A handful of them are genuinely arrogant and full of themselves. The rest are hiding their I-feel-small behind a wall of I’m-to-big-to-care-about-your-feelings. I can recognise those people a mile off because I was one of them but that doesn’t stop them from making me uncomfortable. I also think they need to grow up. Or at least wipe the smirk off their faces and replace it with a smile if they can’t think of anything to say.
But above all, I think in personal interactions basic good manners – acknowledge people right in front of you, make a few comments on the weather if all else fails, say something positive before saying something negative – is a good rule of the thumb and would prevent a lot of unhappiness all around.
That said, Hong Kong is in an interesting situation right now. Because of the political set-up, people feel that the government does what it wants while pretending to listen. There are radical political parties who choose to be noisy and rude. Although I am drawn to more courtly political behaviour, the fact is that often what the radicals are shouting for is legitimate and that nothing would have been achieved if they went the usual route and waited for their turn to speak.
Can one be polite and be an activist? I guess not, and partly that’s why certain professions are closed to me, because I don’t have the personality for them. But even with activists, I think they need to be careful that rudeness does not become a way of life rather than a means to an end. Or maybe in order to be rude in their public life, they have to practice it a lot?