Polite Honesty, or Why Speaking Your Mind Doesn’t Always Work.

Oh dear, the Lady of the Manners hasn’t quite grasped the idea of “timely updates”, has she? The Lady of the Manners is very sorry about that, Snarklings, and promises to try and stay on top of things in the future.

Now the Lady of the Manners had thought that this lesson was going to be about volunteering to help with events, and that perhaps one should examine one’s motivations for doing so. But that lesson is going to be saved for another time, because a very interesting bit of e-mail was sent to Gothic Charm School:


i agree with most of you entertaining etiquette lesson on politness, with one objection. Surely it is better to be ‘politely honest’ with people you dislike? the point here is that, in the end both parties may end up gaining self-knowledge and becoming better people for it, rather than potentially remaining a social paraih for a reason they may never grasp?

An Example: To discuss the weather with someone who you dislike because they (in your opinion), drink too much or are sarcastic destroys the opportunity for them to develop as people, or conversly to respond to your implicit judgement, in return allowing you to learn that you are perhaps overly critical on this aspect, in their eyes?

isn’t respect (the knowledge that you cannot be superior) the basis of genuine politness? As someone who was psychotic in my early 20’s, I am eternally grateful for the kind and genuine judgement of people who took issue with me. They took chips off my shoulders and I became rounded)

keep it real?

Tony

At first, the Lady of the Manners wasn’t quite sure what to make of that piece of correspondence. But then the Lady of the Manners realized that, while being in favor of polite honesty in theory, sees where it breaks down in practice, and perhaps the Lady of the Manners should share her thoughts about that, instead of wandering off to her own little tangential universe again.

Polite honest is indeed a thing to aspire to. Sadly, there is a wide gulf between polite honesty and stating one’s opinions with no regard for other people. There is also a wide gulf between what some people think politely honest behavior is, and what they think it is when they are on the receiving end of it.

In the Lady of the Manners’ universe (which features a lovely, if strict, dress code), polite honesty means expressing your opinion truthfully, calmly, and without the hidden (or not-so-hidden) agenda of starting an argument. (The Lady of the Manners trusts that all of you know the difference between a discussion and an argument. Don’t laugh; just let her cherish that illusion for a bit longer, please.) Polite honesty means there are no overtones of “You’re an imbecile if you don’t agree with me”, and no insults thinly disguised as advice for someone’s own good.

If the Lady of the Manners may be so bold, she’d like to suggest that all of you go back and re-read that last sentence, because the Lady of the Manners feels that’s where the whole idea of polite honesty breaks down. The Lady of the Manners has witnessed far too many instances of “cruel to be kind” that seem to be missing the “to be kind” part of the equation. Also, even if someone has no social skills and causes fights every time they open their mouth (or sit down in front of a computer), there is no good way to tell them that without it going badly. It doesn’t matter how much they may need someone to (very politely) tell them these things; just because they need to hear it doesn’t mean they’ll listen.

The few times the Lady of the Manners has decided to be politely honest with someone concerning uncomfortable truths they needed to hear, the Lady of the Manners approached the conversation with the knowledge that not only would the other person not listen to her, but that they’d probably say inflammatory and hurtful things in return, and that no matter what the Lady of the Manners said or did, they would take her actions as a personal attack.

The Lady of the Manners would love to ask Tony if he thought the people who took chips off his shoulders were being kind and genuine at the time? Or is the filter of hindsight and perspective perhaps giving those interactions a rosy glow? Because the Lady of the Manners cannot think of anyone, the Lady of the Manners included, who would have taken that sort of critique without becoming very prickly and defensive.

Does all this mean the Lady of the Manners thinks everyone should abandon the notion of polite honesty? Good heavens, no. The Lady of the Manners just wants people to be very, very aware that no matter how good their intentions, the odds are high that someone will become cranky about any comments directed at them or their beliefs. Sometimes you might be pleasantly surprised, but don’t bet your collection of pointy boots on that chance. If someone asks your opinion on a potentially sensitive or difficult subject, make sure they really want your opinion, and aren’t merely looking for reassurance or agreement.

But what should you do if someone really does need some uncomfortable truths pointed out to them? Firstly, think very hard about whether or not your speaking of those truths will make any difference. There are people who the Lady of the Manners wouldn’t dream of having those sorts of conversations with, mostly because the Lady of the Manners is well-aware that those people wouldn’t listen to a blessed thing the Lady of the Manners had to say. There is a vast difference between having a difficult conversation and shouting into the abyss, and the Lady of the Manners wouldn’t wish the latter on anyone.

Secondly, try to determine what you are going to say before you start the conversation; well before, actually. If you know what you want to say and how you are going to say it, you might be able to keep the conversation from turning into a heated argument.

Thirdly, keep in mind that whomever you’re talking to will probably feel attacked or hurt, no matter how mild you think you’re being. They may not flounce off in a huff or start yelling, but they probably will still feel a little touchy. You may need to repeatedly explain that your intention was not to upset them, but that you felt certain things Needed To Be Said.

If, after keeping all of those things in mind, you still are going to have one of those difficult but politely honest conversations with someone, the Lady of the Manners wishes you luck, and that not too many inter-scene dramas flare up as a result.

Again, the Lady of the Manners swears she will do better with the whole posting new lessons more often than once every few months thing. After all, you charming creatures keep sending her mail! (Which you should keep doing, Snarklings, don’t think even for a minute that you shouldn’t. The Lady of the Manners loves receiving letters from all of you. You should go write one right now.)

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