I was always taught to be polite. It is probably the reason I say things like “Oh, well…if it’s not too much trouble?” when someone offers me a glass of water and “That would be fantastic – if you’ve got one? No worries if not!” when I’m asked if I want a bag at my local corner shop. It’s not unusual for me to start sentences with “Sorry to be a pain – and I completely understand if the answer’s ‘no’ – but I was just wondering…” Honestly, IT’S A WONDER I GET ANYTHING DONE. Sometimes I am floored by the slow realisation that my whole life is a big hash of politeness and resentment and attempting to be easy-to-please.
The first time I went food shopping with Russ, my boyfriend, the lady on the checkout asked if he had a loyalty card and he said “No.” That was it: “No.” He wasn’t rude and he half-smiled as he said it, but I was shocked all the same. I tried to communicate with the lady via facial expressions – I offered her a ‘sorry’ look and later a ‘hope you’re not offended’ sort of a glance. She didn’t seem to pick up on these.
When we left, I asked Russ why he’d been so blunt with the lady and he said “She asked me a question, I just gave her the answer – what should I have said?” This kind of flummoxed me. I thought about what I’d have preferred for him to say. Then I thought back to all l the answers I’d given in that same scenario in the past:
- “Ohh, no I don’t – sorry!”
- “Noo, I don’t actually, sorry about that!”
- “Ahh, I’m really sorry, I don’t have a card! I keep meaning to get one but I forget, gahh.”
They were all very lengthy, very apologetic, and – I began to understand – kind of unnecessary. The lady on the checkout at Morrisons doesn’t really care if I have a card or not. She won’t be personally offended if I tell her I don’t possess one. She doesn’t want an apology or an explanation – she just wants a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ so she can click through to the next screen and take my payment.
I still struggle with just saying “No” on its own, with no back-up or preliminary fluff, but I was glad I’d had that moment of Morrisons-induced epiphany. It helped me to start thinking about how I was phrasing things, how I was coming across, and how I was unintentionally suggesting that people could treat me.
As a brought-up-to-be-polite kid, I was told that “I want…” doesn’t ‘get’. I was taught that you must never say “I want…” – instead, you should always say “I would like…” I personally think that “I would like…” sounds like something a character from an Enid Blyton book would say and I’ve never really felt too comfortable coming out with it. But with “I want…” out of the question too, I ended up using fairly convoluted and passive-aggressive ways of getting what I did want, such as looking longingly in the direction of the chocolate cake until I was offered a slice, or saying “No, of course I don’t mind!” and hoping the person I was speaking to was a mind-reader who instantly understood that I DID mind and did everything in their power to sort this diabolical situation out immediately.
Did my method work? No. Here’s the thing about being obscenely polite: you don’t offend anyone, but you also don’t get chocolate cake.
And you put yourself down with words that come out of your own mouth. You say “I don’t mind” when you do mind, while eyes gazing at the floor and shaky smiles scream “What I think doesn’t matter, so do whatever you want!” You become so absorbed in seeming kind and unaggressive and amenable that you start to resent everyone around you, whether for not magically knowing what you want without you telling them, or for seeming so assertive and happy and SORTED that you want to punch them in the face.
Being polite is great. Being nice is great. I believe that having a decent level of emotional intelligence and being a warm, empathetic person is vital to holding down relationships with people and functioning in the world. But it took me a long time to understand that you can’t please everyone – and that’s okay. Sometimes you have to say “Me first.” Or even just “Me as well.”
And sometimes, I think “I want…” does get. Or at least it should. If I was to write a list of all the things in my life I’m most proud of, I know it’d be made up of times where I’ve gone after a friendship or a relationship, times where I’ve hounded companies until they’ve hired me, and times where I’ve finally found the strength to stand up for myself and say “No.” I know that my list would really only exist as a result of times I’ve said or decided that “I want…”
The other day, as my mum and I were travelling home from the cinema, her reply to something I mentioned was: “Well, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” It took me a few seconds to realise how unusual it was to hear her say that. It seems unfair to me that we keep all of these things stuck inside of us, like rotting somethings at the bottom of a well. Everybody wants. We might not always be given what we want, but we’re entitled to request it.
“If you don’t ask, you don’t get.” It was a different phrase to the one I’d heard when I was younger, but I liked it. We decided to keep it.