Too polite?

short-order cooks
Photo courtesy of Tyler Fawcett

On a recent road trip, Mr. Misdiagnosed & Admitted and I stopped for a late breakfast at a small-town Blue Highways-style diner that served real home fries and bacon so salty it chapped my lips. It was delicious. I ordered scrambled eggs, but the short-order cook overlooked the specs and fried them over easy. Mr. M&A thought I should send the eggs back to the kitchen, but I couldn’t do it.

I’ve never worked as a waitress, and I’m a lousy cook. A typical restaurant’s profit margin can’t be more than a few cents per dollar, and I didn’t need all those calories anyway.

I’ve overheard visitors to my city describe other Midwesterners as being far too polite. It drives them crazy that some people in the flyover states are loath to give offense. Coastal natives claim that a four-way stop is an insurmountable barrier in Appalachia, where no one wants to assert the right to proceed through the intersection.

Diffidence can be seen as foolish, if not self-defeating. I point to natural selection as an example when I think inordinate modesty is hampering someone’s progress. Nevertheless, it’s not clear to me why some people consider thoughtfulness annoying. Because it compels them to reciprocate? It’s true that thoughtfulness taken to the extreme—to the point of a martyr complex—can be a form of passive aggression sufficient to provoke legitimate dismay, but I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about.

Honesty is a virtue, and assertiveness has its place, but it’s better to err in favor of courtesy. Every time I respond to a writer’s query regarding representation, honesty, in particular, poses a risk. It’s safer to focus on the subjectivity of my decision to take on a client. If I offer to form a partnership with someone, the collaboration should be enjoyable. After all, neither of us will see a dime until we’ve put in many hours of work. There are loads of talented writers. I have the task of selecting those who are also the easiest to work with—professional, courteous, tech-savvy, intelligent, open-minded—for my sake and for the benefit of their publishers.

Photo courtesy of Copernicus Johnson

2 Replies to “Too polite?”

  1. You know, I used to experience the same “annoyance” all of the time when I first moved to California…and nearly five years later I have unfortunately discovered that many people more so in work situations, will read the politeness as a means to see what they can get away with when it comes to me. I haven’t found it in so many social situations in the last three years (I’ve become more discriminating in friendships), but every workplace out here sees my tendency toward politeness as open season on Jo.

    I don’t know what the solution to that is…I’ve been told that I have “taught” these people the wrong behavior concerning me. I think the best balance was to start being selfish with the people who milk me in the long-term. That creates annoyance on their part, too–but then, they aren’t on my polite list anymore.

    As with anything, it’s a fine line here in the coastal areas.

  2. Jo, I actually see incremental differences on the continuum from diffidence to assertiveness, though I didn’t say so in the post. My behavior changed when I moved from a major US city to a very small one, and I was more than happy to leave the constant vigilance behind. Of course, I continue to interact with people all over the world. Occasionally, I encounter someone extraordinarily aggressive, self-serving, and rude, but I remind myself that those people are the rare exceptions. I love a good debate, but not necessarily with a prospective client.

    We teach people what to expect from us, and it shapes their behavior. If we tolerate discourtesy, then there’s effectively no penalty for boorishness.

    Jo, I spent many years working with people I didn’t choose as my colleagues. These days, I’m extremely grateful to be in a position to make some of those choices.

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