The Church of Radical Politeness

I was riding my bike along the river path the other day, heading from one meeting to the next. There were three lunch-breaking office workers on a slow stroll filling the lane in front of me, a speed-walker between us, and a bike coming towards us in the oncoming lane. The walker and I both moved to go around the office folks at the same time. She heard me coming, and did a tiny quick shuffle step to get around them faster. Instead of growling at the office folks, I said “Thank you!” as I passed the speed-walker, who smiled back and waved. The office walkers looked up from their conversation and apologized to the woman who had needed to jog to get around them. No one had any road rage, everyone traded smiles, and we all continued on in our personal activities.

It was an utterly ordinary interaction, in which everyone behaved as if we all had a right to be there, and as though no one was out to get anyone else. The slow-moving office-walkers weren’t walking three abreast to be assholes – they were walking together so they could enjoy the oddly warm day and have a conversation with each other. The speed-walker wasn’t mad that other people were on her exercise track. And I, on my commute, didn’t act as though my need to get to work trumped everyone else’s right to be by the river.

But I’ve had hundreds of interactions that go the other way. If I had been in a lousy mood, and deliberately swerved to intimidate the office people, or if the speed-walker had gotten pissed at me for making her jog, that brief moment could have left a really ugly stain on everyone’s day. Easy to do – we’re all frustrated by the demands of living on top of each other, the world is falling to pieces, the speed-walker wants to be in better shape, the office workers want to be going home instead of back to work, and I want to be at my meeting, not sweating with a 30 pound backpack on my back. Right?

But, because the speed-walker said to herself “Let me help” and I said “Thank you” to the helpful one instead of “Fuck you” to the obstacles, it was an utterly pleasant moment. Simple, simple choices. Are they scalable? What would happen if we approached all of our interactions with the presumption that the other person actually belongs there?

I’m not saying that we need to behave as though everyone in every conversation is equally informed. I’m suggesting that, if I acknowledge the fact that my having read a blog about the Trans-Pacific-Trade Partnership does not make me as knowledgeable as a lifelong economist, then I can approach the topic with an attitude that I’m trying to learn something. If everyone in every conversation approached their interactions working under the assumption that we are all trying to find answers, then the conversations we have could actually become fruitful. I’m not talking about the TPP because I need you to know what I know – I’m talking about it because I think I know something about it, and want to know more. And – here’s the amazing thing – if everyone else in that conversation has a similar attitude, then even the experts might learn something.

I understand that this may seem radical, especially in an age of the Instant Internet Authority – we have all become Cliff Clavens, with an endless source of Little Known Facts backed by at least one other person online. We can all support our opinions and outrage with a few clicks and taps. But, what would happen if we all tempered those opinions with a measure of respect? If we all decide to act as though intentions are good, even though they may not be? What would happen if we all traveled through life granting everyone with whom we interact the fundamental respect that comes with believing that they have made whatever choices they felt were best at each juncture in their lives? What would happen if we chose to begin every exchange with politeness? Why not launch every conversation with the presumption of innocence, the way our legal system is supposed to function.

In theater, most professionals practice what I like to call “the presumption of competence” – we assume, when we’re responding to each others’ work, that what we’re seeing is the result of deliberate choices. When we assume that the artists who made the work we’re watching actually intended for us to see and hear what’s onstage, we are able to respond to what’s there, not to what we came in expecting. And then, if we get a chance to discuss their work with them, we launch with respect for the mind behind those choices. I may not like the work you made, but I can respect you, the artist who made it, and, based on that, we can have an actual conversation that leads towards better art.

In this Church, we wouldn’t  venerate fools, or roll over for bullies. That would just be frustrating, and no fun at all. But, okay, here’s a situation/response proposal working under this philosophy: a friend of mine is a major production manager, running events attended by multiple millions of people. The other day, she was on the phone with some talent’s manager who, when trying to get what she wanted, said, “Bitch, don’t you know I’m XXXX’s manager?” Now, in the Church of Radical Politeness, my friend might respond, “You are obviously having a terrible day, and the way you’re speaking to me is making your client look really bad. I’m going to get off the phone now, and when you’ve calmed down why don’t you call me back, and we can figure out how your client and my event are going to work together? Thanks!” No rolling over, just a nice dollop of “You don’t mean to be a jerk, so let me give you another chance.” If we assume the best about someone, will they rise to it?

It’d take a whole lot of faith in others, and maybe a big dose of humility. And it wouldn’t always work. To quote one of my favorite humans, “some people are just douche-nozzling ass-hats” who will only respond to politeness with more douchebaggery. I get it. But what if we just keep raising the stakes of politeness? What if we just keep being more and more respectful to the seemingly unredeemable jerkwads? Would it work?

It’d have to start with a few brave individuals, willing to go through life giving everyone credit – even credit they do not seem to deserve. And it’d take a real leap of faith – I’m not calling it a Church because I people to tithe or light incense… But it just might work. Because the magical thing about politeness? It’s oddly contagious. Try it out for yourself, as an experiment – later today, when someone rubs you the wrong way, check your outrage for a half second, and be extra polite. Say “Excuse me” or “Thank you” or some other totally innocuous, socially graceful phrase that costs you absolutely nothing. And let me know what happens.



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