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Why be polite?

“What a silly question! Be polite and don’t ask questions!” is what most are most likely to say, if at all they care to answer the question. Seventy years ago, when I was a child, growing up in a village in the district of Cuttack, elders at home taught me polite manners and so did my teachers at school. Being polite was viewed as respecting the tradition. “Speak pleasantly to others” is a well-known traditional saying. And “speak pleasantly”, is part of being polite.Questioning openly or even suggestively what our ancients had said was nothing but stupidity, my village elders would have said to anyone who had dared do so.

Many years later, I realized that “why be polite?” is a legitimate question to ask, thanks to my reading Bertrand Russell’s book “The Impact of Science on Society”. Nothing should be accepted just for reasons of tradition, he said. I thought the saying “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” would constitute probably the most satisfactory answer to the question. From this point of view, politeness is about being pleasant, at least, inoffensive, to others.  But to be so is not always easy. One needs to be extra-careful. One might think that what he was saying was inoffensive, but the hearer might not think so. Sometimes an innocent joke might be taken as offensive. And what the hearer thinks is important because polite behaviour is other-oriented, not self-oriented. “But isn’t there something wrong when all the time you act in order to please others?” one might ask, “Aren’t you being dishonest to yourself?”True; one cannot always do or say things to please others.So,the best solution would seem to be this:let the contextof the situation determine what one should do.  Misjudging the context can be costly; so, one must be on guard.

Some years ago, one of my students (now, a senior faculty at a well-known university) attended a job interview for a faculty position at a certain university. His interview went off very well and the selection committee gave him fairly clear hints to the effect that he would be selected. He was about to leave the meeting when a member of the committee asked him whether he had a read a certain paper of his which had been recently published. He said that he had and the member was very pleased. His pleasure is understandable; it gave him ego satisfaction. But the ego asked for more. Sohe asked him to give his honest opinion on his paper. My student, who practises academic integrity to a fault, took his phrase “honest opinion” seriously and gave his honest opinion. It was unflattering. The member’s face fell and my student never got the letter of appointment. The moral is simple: “Do not tell the unpleasant truth”, as prescribed by our tradition. That’s being impolite. Telling the unpleasant truth would hurt the hearer.

Anyway, why bring in ethics into this! Politeness to others is a necessity. If one did not live in a society, then there is no need for him to be polite because there will be no one to be polite towards. If we live in a society, we need the cooperation of others.In 1965, I joined S.C.S. College, Puri as lecturer and my monthly salary was two hundred and eighty rupees, including DA (dearness allowance). My old parents, my younger brother and sister were living in a rented house. By the twenty-fifth of the month, I had no money for buying food for the family. So, I had to borrow from my colleagues. Now, if I were not polite towards them, would anyone of them have lent me money? Was not being polite an option for me? And is this just my story? For one thing or the other, aren’t we dependent on one another? You may hate your neighbour but if you tell him on his face that you dislike him, won’t you have a hostile neighbour? Is it safe to have a hostile neighbour?

Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher, observed that polite behaviour is insincere, which is an entirely uncontroversial observation. From this it follows that it is not spontaneous and, in that sense, not natural. For example, the Odia-speaking children have to be taught the use of the pronoun of familiarity or disrespect, i.e., tu and of the pronoun of respect i.e., tume and later, the use of the other pronoun of respect, namely, apana. They have to be taught not only to greet a guest but also how to do so. By and large, two-year olds do not like strangers in the house because they feel threatened by their presence. When I visited my Kannadiga friend at his place, his little daughter, from the safety of her mother’s lap, told me “Po”, that is “go away”. Her mother was aghast. She apologized to me but I wasn’t displeased at all. I enjoyed the spontaneous response of the child, barely, two-years old to the presence of a stranger.  Spontaneity becomes a problem in the world of the adults.

About twenty-four hundred years ago, the Chinese philosopher, Zunzi, is said to have observed that manners are arbitrary rules. I have no idea what rules he had in mind but our own experience amply validates his observation. Why is it impolite to ask a woman her age? Or for that matter, anyone? Why must one relish one dish at a time during lunch or dinner and not two or three dishes together? Why is it impolite to burp after lunch or dinner in front of the other guests in some cultures, such as the Western and the Japanese, for instance, but not so in others, such as ours? There was a time when burping after food by the guest was taken as the expression of his appreciation of the food; it was taken as a compliment to the hostess. the guest’s being satisfied with the food. As for licking one’s fingers, once I was upbraided by the hostess when I was licking my fingers? The dinner was almost over and an interesting conversation was going on. I didn’t want to get up and go to the basin to wash my fingers and in the process miss it. Maybe, I was feeling a bit lazy too. It was a home dinner and there were no napkins to wipe one’s fingers. I wasn’t comfortable with my not-so-clean fingers and was surreptitiously trying to clean them. I do not think it was unreasonable for me to do so. But my hostess told me, with much kindness, thatit wasn’t the done thing.

Polite behaviour may be insincere and artificial and some of it, based on considerations that defy understanding but for living a relatively hassle -free life in a society, it is absolutely necessary. For living in cooperation with the others, it is essential to be sensitive to the feelings of the others. Being by nature social, we seek the company of others. We need to build relationships. But if we are not polite, we will be shunned by others. For various reasons, others might do or feel constrained to do things for us but would not like being with us. Linguists say we are human because we have language. We can say, without annoying the linguists, that we are human because we are talkative too. Now, we can have the joy of talking if there is someone to listen to us. Just think, if we are impolite and rude, which human would bother to listen to our prattle? We will then have to hire a listener and the cost may be high.

(The views expressed are the writer’s own)

Prof. B.N.Patnaik

Retd. Professor of Linguistics and English, IIT Kanpur

Email: [email protected]

(Images from the net)

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