Being polite may be harmful to your health

Like many middle-class women of my age, I was raised to be polite. This entailed many things: saying please and thank you, calling my friends’ parents Mr or Mrs, standing up when someone older came into the room, and the like. While I chafed at the rules at the time, they eventually became second nature to me.

I have to admit that I have always had a fondness for the structure and certainty provided by the rules of etiquette. I have an embarrassingly large collection of etiquette books, especially those by Miss Manners (real name Judith Martin).

She is my all-time favourite because she mixes practicality with a good sense of humour: what other etiquette expert has written about how to dress appropriately when participating in a picket line?

If you want to know how to set the table for a seven-course dinner for 12 –  with or without a gloved footman and other staff to assist you – I am the person to ask. First tip: you will need a ruler to make sure you place all the dishes and cutlery exactly the same distance apart.

That is all fine and well, if a bit silly, but there is a less benign side to good manners than, as the saying goes, minding your ps and qs.

Good manners = silence about violence

When girls are raised to think that being polite includes not talking about abuse and violence, it leaves them and the women they become vulnerable to that abuse. If we have been raised to say nothing if we can’t say something nice; if our good manners dictate that our job is to smooth over difficulties and make other people feel good no matter how we are feeling, we are not likely to speak up when someone sexually harasses, abuses or assaults us or when our partner abuses us.

After Taylor Swift reported to DJ David Mueller’s boss that he had grabbed her ass during a photo shoot in 2013, Mueller – who got fired – sued Swift for more than $3 million in lost earnings. She countersued him for a symbolic $1, portraying what had happened as a sexual assault. (These were all civil proceedings; Swift did not report the incident to police.)

In the course of the trial this summer, in which Swift was successful, the issue of good manners arose more than once. In her testimony, Swift described her reaction to the ass-grab as: “I just said in a monotone voice, ‘Thank you for coming.’“

She was being polite, smoothing the waters, making sure the event ran smoothly while also, no doubt, wondering what on earth had just happened to her.

When Swift’s mother, Andrea Swift, testified, she said, among other things:

“[Taylor] couldn’t believe that after the incident, she thanked him for being there. . . . It made me question why, as a parent, I had encouraged her to be so polite.”  

As Swift acknowledges, her fame and wealth allowed her to counter-sue the man who, first, sexually assaulted her and, then, sued her when she reported what he had done:

“I acknowledge the privilege that I benefit from in life, in society and in my ability to shoulder the enormous cost of defending myself in a trial like this. My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard.”

Hooray for a woman, privileged as she may be, who stepped outside the traditional rules of etiquette and good manners to call out the sexually assaultive behaviour of David Mueller. May many more women follow in her footsteps.

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