Tuesday, November 18, 2008


A friend of mine said to me earlier tonight, "I don't want to impose on you...but I have to keep reminding myself that you like that." In a way my friend is right, but the truth is, I simply have a different perspective on imposition. There are practical and sentimental reasons for this, but the philosophical reasons are more interesting, so I will limit myself to those tonight. Before I begin, allow me to be self-referential for a moment and bring up some things I said long ago, to provide some context for the rest of this post:

"Think about the relationships in your life and you will see that these connections are more than just a line connecting the dots, more than just the chain in a global chain gang. There are (consciously or unconsciously) obligations we must meet, expectations we have, rights we grant to others, rights we assume for ourselves. When we enter into a relationship with someone, we are throwing open the gates to our personal city. To whatever degree, that connection gives them a certain amount of power to affect us. No wonder relationships are so scary, and no wonder they affect us so strongly!"

— talk about blast from the past: I wrote that two and a half years ago in this post.

"In as few words as possible, here is my definition: work is that action which exceeds what we are pleased to contribute in a relationship."

— from this post.

In a rather sloppy and markedly cynical post last year, I somewhat dismissively defined politeness as adherence to social conventions (Answers.com gives a similar definition, though with less dismissive intent: "Polite and mannerly imply consideration for others and the adherence to conventional social standards of good behavior"). I also stated that the rules of polite behavior "serve only to give us the illusion of 'control' over our own lives while simultaneously isolating us from others." While the first part of that statement is not entirely accurate, I hold to the second part (though without my earlier cynical interpretation): in practical application, one of the major effects — perhaps even intents — of the rules of polite behavior is the delineation or recognition of boundaries between people. For example, when a friend of mine wanted to interview a well-known professor for his thesis, he first sent a letter outlining his request, then followed up with a phone call to schedule the interview. The letter and the phone call were his adherence to social convention for the purpose or with the effect of showing respect both to the status of the professor and to the non-existence of any relationship between them: elaborate politeness in recognition of significant boundaries between them. (On the other hand, it should be noted that the elaborate politeness was for the purpose of crossing those boundaries.) Would the professor expect such overtures from a friend? Personally, I would hope not. For a friend, I am told, it is customary to expect a phone call or some other interaction before a visit: lesser expectations in recognition of lesser boundaries (again, for the purpose of crossing the boundaries). Taking the example another step further, what would be expected of the professor's children? It seems reasonable to think that a mere knock on the door would suffice, if even that. Finally, what of the professor's wife? The two are one flesh — surely no letter of introduction is required, and she should only have to knock if she forgot her key.

In short, and mathematically speaking, my interpretation of the rules of polite behavior as regards social interactions can be summarized thus: the elaborateness of the social precautions required is directly proportional to the measure of the boundary to be crossed.

Note that I said interpretation, not application. The above argument is simply a matter of convenience. If my friend had been stranded on the highway, I hope that the professor would not expect a letter and a phone call before stopping to help. Practicality and urgency trump all of these niceties. That being the case, one might refer to all of these rules as either pretenses or tools, depending on one's level of cynicism. On the one hand, politeness can be viewed as playacting, jumping through hoops (and requiring others to jump through hoops) in the name of satisfying each others' expectations; on the other hand — and I think this is the better perspective — politeness is a means by which we express our respect for others. So then, to my interpretation of the rules of polite behavior I add my application: politeness is something expressed to others, not expected from them.

At long last, I get to the point: over the past few years, I have discovered (developed?) in myself a perspective on relationships that as far as I can tell is rather unusual: because I tend to view politeness as a recognition of interpersonal boundaries, elaborate politeness on the part of people I view as close friends is actually a source of disappointment for me, sometimes even frustration. If it helps, imagine that one of your friends drew an invisible ten foot circle around you and always made a point of stopping to ask permission before crossing into it. Polite? Sure. Excessive? I would think so.

That's only half of the oddity: logically speaking, if politeness is a recognition of interpersonal boundaries, then imposition is a rejection of interpersonal boundaries. Now imagine that your friend sees the invisible ten foot circle around you but the thought of asking before crossing into it never occurs to him because he thinks that even if your relationship doesn't give him the right to enter the circle, it should. Believe it or not, I actually see that as a good thing, and that is the perspective my friend was talking about tonight.

I have never understood it when one friend says to another, "I didn't ask, because I didn't want to bother you," first and foremost because it assumes that the other is incapable of saying "no" when necessary. Now if only I could get myself to stop saying it. What can I say? I'm a hypocrite.

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Blogger The Blossers said...

Great post, Jon. Really great post.

Friday, November 21, 2008 10:06:00 PM  

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