You don’t have to be polite, but you may be punished if you’re not

schmidt

The first episode of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” includes a great joke about the societal pressures on women to be polite: 

There’s a delicious scene in the first episode of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Tina Fey’s comedy about a woman rescued from an apocalypse cult. Freshly liberated from their underground prison, Kimmy and the other hostages go on the “Today” show, where Matt Lauer asks them how they fell into captivity.

One of the women, Cyndee, says she was abducted while working at a restaurant. “Yes, I had waited on Reverend Richard a bunch of times at a York Steakhouse I worked at, and one night he invited me out to his car to see some baby rabbits, and I didn’t want to be rude so … here we are,” she says.

“I’m always amazed at what women will do because they’re afraid of being rude,” Lauer replies.

Most women can think back to some time when they encountered a creepy guy, or just simply didn’t feel like talking, but felt like they needed to politely nod along or find some delicate way to extricate themselves from the conversation. There’s a complicated set of calculations that goes into deciding how to respond: are you alone, are you in a public place, is feigned politeness the fastest way to cut things short? Women are taught to feel like we owe men something, even if they’re strangers and we’ve expressed no desire to engage with them. I was once walking down the street with a friend when a random guy said, “Hey ladies, you want some company?” I was continuing to walk on stone-faced, while my friend cheerily replied, “No, thanks, but thank you for the offer!” It was an extreme example probably influenced by a small-town upbringing, but it speaks to how ingrained it is that we must preserve our image as polite people.

Jeff Guo writes about this issue in relation to a new opinion poll that confirms a “gender gap in civility.” Men and women were asked their opinions about various “rude” behaviors and whether they participate in them. Curiously, they ask about whether it is acceptable to make fun of someone’s race or gender. More men than women deemed this behavior acceptable. I hope most people recognize sexism and racism as on another level than garden-variety “rudeness” or “incivility.” But they also examine behaviors that aren’t objectively harmful but deemed impolite:

Men are also more liberal in their attitudes about swearing. About 27 percent say that it is okay for people to use swear words in public, compared to 19 percent of women. And 29 percent of men condone the use of the f-word in conversations, compared to 21 percent of women.

The gender disparity sharpens when it comes to people’s own behavior. Men are twice as likely to say they drop the f-bomb at least once a day. About 31 percent of men report a daily f-word habit, compared to 16 percent of women.

I did not know my daily dropping of the f-bomb put me in such an elite group of women. Guo goes on to link the poll to other studies about how differently men’s and women’s behavior is interpreted and what is perceived as “rude.” As he points out, the “Kimmy Schmidt” joke hints at the complex nature of this problem:

The abduction joke in “Kimmy Schmidt” is clever because it operates on both these levels. It lampoons the norms that impose silence and deference on women. But it also makes fun of people who think that gender equality could be achieved if only women were more assertive. Lauer’s overly knowing quip (“I’m always amazed at what women will do because they’re afraid of being rude”) caricatures this “lean-in” brand of thinking.

As with a lot of women’s behavior, there’s never one right answer. Over the years, I’ve grown more and more comfortable with bluntly shutting down random men who are just a nuisance. Often in these situations, the behavior that would be called rude is just being clear and upfront about our desires and protective of our time and space. But taking that control isn’t always going to work. In fact, it can have violent and even deadly consequences for women.

What’s your relationship with so-called “rude” behavior? Do you often find yourself softening your approach rather than dealing with the consequences of being perceived as rude?

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Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

8 thoughts on “You don’t have to be polite, but you may be punished if you’re not”

  1. I find that I’m polite more often than not. I was always told growing up that it was important to be nice to people, even if they weren’t being nice to you. This carried over in ways that my mom never warned me about. I didn’t know how to respond when I was a teenager and some guy made lewd comments about my body. I didn’t know how to tell the old man at the grocery store that I didn’t want to know what a “real man” could teach me. I was sixteen at that point. I’m a little older now and I still fall back onto the practices of being polite even when they’ve made me more than a little uncomfortable. I’m trying to take more stands and be more vocal about my wants and needs but it’s difficult to fight that knee-jerk reaction to just let it go. There is always a part of me that knows that I have no way of knowing how they will react to me being “rude.”

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    1. Thanks for sharing. It’s a really hard habit to shake, especially when people are so used to women breaking out of that mold that they tend to react poorly. I always remind myself that I don’t really care if some stranger thinks I’m a “bitch,” but you never know when their reaction might go beyond just being offended or annoyed. Also, sometimes it’s easier to just ignore people and not expend the energy.

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  2. It’s so difficult to be part of these conversations, where we’re so eager, almost sadisticslly, to blame everything on gender. Courtesy, at least within the context of a date, is something everyone is conscious of. Just ask a random 100 men, if you’re open to having your ignorance challenged. This has to do with basic decency and empathy, the knowing that someone took the effort to be with you. The fact that this is turned into yet another “proof” of “male entitlement” …

    As for gender civility, I am not surprised at the gap, given there are very obvious differences between how men and women express anger and uncouthness-from my own experience, this seems to be more a inter-sectional byproduct of not only gender, race, but also class and how they shape upbringing.

    Anyways, men tend to be more honest about how they feel; but if a woman hopes you dies, she’ll find ways to drench the thought in some nicely laid passive aggressiveness. I wish I could think one example out, it’s always funny to witness. Until we acknowledge this, studies on gender and manners will always be flawed.
    This issue is part of a bigger discussion and it’s sad we’ve wasted yet another opportunity at moving things forward, because we’re still trapped by our gender-tinted glasses.

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    1. Not really sure what you’re trying to say here in relationship to the topic of this post. If you read the post I linked to, it’s one of many, many that confirm that men and women are treated very differently for being assertive, or as some would call it, rude.

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  3. Lately, I’ve joined you in being direct, but wow the difference is those men’s response is noticeable! When I was polite, they would ignore me, and now when I’m direct, they still ignore me but just add that I’m a bitch or or whatever other insult they can come with. But this way, I feel I’m being much more true to myself.

    Even so, I do find myself worrying that I’m not being nice enough in my direct approach, but I don’t think it’s because of the ingrained need to be polite. When I would just nod along, sure, but not since being more direct. I want to be a nice person in general, not just to men. I feel bad when the anger just comes out before I can even really control it, so I try to just say politely what I mean. Then again, most of the time the men in question tend to ignore that, so being more aggressive has to happen.

    Sigh… you just can’t win, can you?

    Thanks for writing this, Rebecca, I really enjoyed it! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading. It really is a struggle and usually the result will be unsatisfying in some way no matter how you respond. I think it’s a good philosophy to go out into the world with the intention of being nice, caring and respectful and I try to do that. But it’s hard to decide how to respond when people approach you in a way that is none of those things.

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  4. I think politeness is drummed into you from childhood, if you are female. Even to this day, I consciously try to be polite, even if I want to be rude I cannot, as you said, it may turn violent. Guys take us for granted. Wish the scenario changes at least to some extent, that our daughters are bold enough to stand for themselves in exchange for civil behavior of male.

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