Friday, August 13, 2010

Old-fashioned manners

One thing I find continually fascinating is how people view someone who is polite, even when they are irritated or angry.

I was brought up to be unfailingly polite and it has served me well in some very sticky situations. Being polite has also made some circumstances a bit weird.

When I worked in New Orleans as one of the attractions in a haunted house on Conti about a half-block from Bourbon Street -- I was the gypsy fortuneteller -- people often came through drunk. With all the daiquiris and Hurricanes floating around, it wasn't a surprise. Add cheap and plentiful beer in 32-ounce, or larger, cups and you have a sloshing mix of vomit, slurred speech, passing out and belligerence that makes everything else seem pedestrian. All that alcohol, especially in most men, super fuels their worst traits. One inebriated tourist who was scared when he found out I wasn't a wax figure, like Madame Tussuad's on Bourbon, tried to impress his friends with his knowledge of animal anatomy.

There was a small skull on my black velvet covered table next to the crystal ball on an ornate golden stand. "What's that?" he asked as he lurched over the short railing that surrounded my enclosure. "The jawbone of an ass," I responded, smiling sweetly behind my black lace veil. "Don't you recognize it?" He nearly broke his neck attempting to jump the railing to get to me as he shouted curses and spilled beer over his friends, the drapes and the walls. He wanted to kill me for killing his punch line. The roaming specter caught him just in time and hauled him off to the relief of his wife and friends.

Most of the people who have flung their disdain and pique and foulness in my direction have been similarly met with a cool and calm demeanor and some very cutting and quick retorts, but most of the time I prefer to rely on what I was taught: always be polite. Sometimes it's the best defense.

Recently, someone I know pretty well but who just didn't get the message that we were through until a couple of days ago, had contacted me on Monday morning after six months of silence to ask a favor. I didn't have what he required, but I did point him in the direction where he could find what he wanted. He thanked me and I responded with, "You're very welcome." It was a short and to the point exchange. No frills and no conversation. Just the facts.

When he later finally paid attention and found out that I was done waiting around for him to show up or carry on any kind of normal communication expected in a relationship, he was devastated. He could not understand how I could be so polite and obliging and not give him a sign that I was angry at him. It's because I'm not angry. There is a point where someone has ignored you and caused so much pain and so many tears that you reach a point where there are no more tears and no more pain. Emotional resources are exhausted, at least where they are concerned, and all that remains is cool politeness, common civility of the kind reserved for casual acquaintances and strangers. It's always best to save the anger, rancor, bile and venom for people close to you so you can hurt them as much as they hurt you. After all, we only hurt the ones we can reach. Don't you find that so?

He keeps searching for an answer. Why was I polite if I was so hurt and angry? The answer is simple. I am no longer hurt and angry. The emotional trash has been taken out and we continue now as common and indifferent acquaintances, as Jane Bennett observed. It never hurts to be polite to people, even the ones you can reach, and I've found that common civility and politeness usually leave a deeper impression than screaming tantrums and tearful scenes. I certainly left a lasting impression on the pickled and beer-soaked tourist who found himself likened to an ass. That was one polite retort I doubt he'll ever forget, no matter how drunk he gets, or at least that is the impression his wife left when she showed up at the box office the next day to deliver a message for the gypsy fortuneteller who put her overweening and pompous husband in his place.

A kind word, a smile and a polite manner always leaves them guessing. Old-fashioned manners are best.

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