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Politeness Politics

September 19, 2012

I consider myself to be a very polite person. I always say “thank you” when someone holds the door for me, or picks up something I’ve dropped. I greet everyone with a friendly smile and a “hello” or a wave. I’m always sure to apologize if I ever bump into someone. Basically, I consider myself adept at following the customs of everyday niceties. There are people out there who are quite inept at these simple things, but I’ll save that for another discussion.

What I’m here today to discuss is this: what are the barriers of politeness? I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s been in situations where it’s hard to discern when your politeness has gone too far–when you’ve held your smile for just a moment too long, you’ve laughed just a little too obviously loud at a not-funny joke, or when–and this is the absolute worst of all–other people don’t actually SEE your niceness.

My whole life I’ve worked 9-5 jobs. (Ok, that’s not true, I haven’t worked 9-5 jobs my ENTIRE life, don’t allow me to trick you into thinking that, as an infant, I sat behind a desk and made Excel spreadsheets and took phone calls for presidents and treasurer. See how polite I am? Who else would have pointed that out?) Since I’ve been in the “workforce” I’ve held 9-5 jobs. (That’s better!) Most people’s blood would curdle at the mere thought of that, but I’ve managed pretty well. If anything the hard part, more than the mundane aspect of most of them, was the having to exchange niceties with people to an almost painful degree. Now, I must mention, that at my current job I’m surrounded by co-workers who are not only ridiculously nice and polite, but are also genuinely hilarious and fun to be around. So, every topic presented from this point forth is in regards to prior jobs and prior employers. (And no, this isn’t just a nicety to save face, but the actual, God’s honest truth.)

For example, at all prior jobs there was always the “funny guy,” the “comedian,” the “jokester” who was there to intervene and bring some fun and exuberance to the otherwise stuffy atmosphere–usually of some high rank, who was, more often than not, not very funny. For example, when I was younger I would occasionally accompany my mom to her job.  As I got older, I’d help with different tasks here and there, filing, watering plants–you know, the important stuff. But early on I would usually sit by her desk with some pencils and highlighters and create art. My “art” during this time frame was mainly comprised of poorly drawn fictitious pop music groups that I would create. I’d mainly base them off of the Spice Girls, but with new bands like S Club 7 out, I realized that there was no limit to how many members my music groups could have! Spice Girls have five members, S Club 7 has seven (if you really wanted to count the dudes in the group, that is) but GIRLZ has eight! Every member would have a different outfit that would accentuate her individual personality, all would have fun names and nicknames, and they would all be British. And they’d have songs too, I guess, I never really got around to that aspect of it. Actually, I’d never really get around to completing most of those drawings since I’d usually only be working with about five highlighters and wouldn’t have different colors for the other members. Eventually, I grew out of the girl group phase and, having hardly any artistic skill, the time had come for me to start helping out at work with more important tasks. And so, I was upgraded from pop music artisan to data entry. Once proficiently skilled at this, I found myself part-time employed at my mom’s job dealing with scanning and even more data entry with the occasional bonus of stuffing envelopes. It didn’t bother me–it was busy work but for a sixteen year old with a new cash flow, it was a joy. Well, the work aspect of it, that is…

Something that I’ve noticed in time is that if an old Italian man thinks a joke is funny, you will hear that same joke every time you see that man for as long as possible. When I’d join my mother at work occasionally after school as a child her boss would come over to me and say “heh, I see you brought your mother to work today.” I, as a girl of about 9 or 10, found this joke pretty funny, and so, I laughed both heartily and politely. And it was because of this that I heard that same joke every time I would see this man, right up to and including when I was 16 and working there every day. I would hear it every. single. day. This was one of those moments where I really had to sit down and start thinking things over. Do I keep laughing every time he says it? Do I allow him to think it’s still funny after all these years? Do I tone down my laughter ever so much each day so he finally gets the hint and we can walk away from this without ever mentioning it again? Do I just not laugh at all anymore and stop it abruptly? Something needs to be done–but what? I eventually decided to keep laughing every time because he was the one who was in charge of my paycheck.

I’d run into this situation plenty more times in my life, and I still occasionally find myself holding a laugh or a smile for just a pinch too long (ever turn away from someone and have to re-adjust your facial muscles to stop the polite grin from expanding further so you don’t end up looking like an even more demented Cheshire Cat? It’s not as fun as it sounds, trust me.) But I’ve also run into another predicament: when people don’t see your random acts of politeness and how to handle it accordingly. Ok, I’m not saying I act nice just to get people to notice, nor is that the only reason anyone should be polite. However, there are moments when the other person seeing your kindness or generosity is that dividing line between being cool with them, and them thinking you’re a complete and total asshat. Like if you tip a bartender or barista (a substantial tip, too) right as they turn their backs so they don’t notice and you then you have to hope they won’t take it out on you the fact that they just spent five minutes making your extra-foamy latte or Harvey Wallbanger when they could have been flirting with a much more attractive patron or customer because hey, college is expensive and you try getting up at 5 am or working until 5 am before or after classes just for money to spend on books you’d need sexual release sometime, too.

So, to avoid a spitty drink further down the road (that ain’t just foam on that latte, bub) you WANT them to notice your kindness. Because a job well done deserves a tip, and only people without souls or spare change would not leave one. But now you’ve left them the last of your change and they didn’t notice. What do you do?  Do you try to get their attention and let them know? Do you wait until their looking and hover your hand over their tip cup so they see? Do you George Costanza it and actually TAKE the money out just to put it back in? I don’t know, it’s up to you. I don’t really know the answer to any of these questions that I’ve posed, because I still run into these problems daily which is why I don’t like going out much.

Basically, I’m no good at social interactions, is what I’m saying. But hey–BLOG!

Though, there is one thing I DO know: if things don’t pan out in my life and current work situation, I’ll be more than willing to fake laughter for money. I’ve done it before, I’ll do it again!

There will never again be a party quite like that of an S Club party.

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