When Being Polite Is Merely Superficial

Sometimes being polite to someone is actually just a way to get them off your back.

Photo by Rishabh Dharmani on Unsplash

People are strange. Neurotypical people are the strangest. Neurodivergent people who are consciously or not propagating neurotypical habits are also among the strangest. Internalized ableism is a thing.

Not so long ago, I sent a message to someone who had given a class on a topic that shall not be discussed here. I mentioned a problem that people who are new to the topic are likely to make. I pointed out how I made that mistake myself early on and was surprised at the result. My work looked correct, but it wasn’t, and the end result was that someone could have been hurt. I suggested pointing the problem out explicitly in the class.

I’ll note here that this class was given to people of a variety of skill ranges. There were experienced folks, and utter newbies. I know, because being relatively new, I asked beforehand.

This person replied that they had discussed a different issue used in a more specialized context, which implied the thing that I wanted to make explicit. This is entirely true.

I was contemplating a response pointing out that the specialized context that they were thinking about is one that I never had to be in, and most likely the other participant would not be called to be in that context any time soon. Moreover, the link between what I was talking about and what this context was would not be evident in the mind of newcomers. Yes, once he said it, I could see the link, but prior to that I did not see it.

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In my view, rejecting my suggestion amounted to letting newcomers perhaps go back home with a lack of knowledge that could in some case prove dangerous. They could hurt someone.

I thought about my reply… and then I decided to reply with “Thank you.” I was polite. I seemed to accept the entirety of this person’s reasoning.

Alas… that’s just an illusion. I figured that if I pushed, I’d probably regret it. Their initial reply was defensive. Why would they switch gears and accept my point of view if I decided to stick to my guns? I essentially decided that this person was too stubborn to be talked to. Yes. I was polite, but this was only to acknowledge their answer and not further fan the flames. My thanks were an insult of sorts. Conversely, I expect that this person saw my initial message to them as being insulting. I did not use insulting language, but that does not matter one bit.

This is far from the first time that this happens. I recall, not so fondly I might add, one person who reviews some work of mine when I was working on my master’s degree. She was a language lawyer, and did not miss a chance to harp on the language that the Chicago Manual of Style said was to be privileged. None of her comments were about the substance of my work. They were all about the aesthetics of it.

She got a polite reply. I thanked her, all the while thinking that the entire enterprise had been a complete waste of time. I ignored most of her recommendations. I despise people who review other people’s works only to completely squash their authorial voice, like she did. So much so that when I have to review someone else’s work, I specify that they can ignore everything I have to say. Ultimately, their work is theirs. I also do not harp on matters of style just for the lulz.

Conversely, if I bother to point out problems in something that you did, chances are that I think you are a person who can take my advice, and I want our relationship to continue. Alas, I’ve sometimes been disappointed. I thought that someone was able to take my feedback, only to find that they couldn’t. They cast my feedback as impoliteness. I did point out to them that I could have just thanked them, all the while thinking them too immature or weak to take my advice, and that this would have been fake politeness, but this usually does not work.

There you have it. Sometimes the polite demeanor that someone shows you means that they consider you too immature to handle what they really think. Yes, they are polite, but just on the surface.






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