“So do you know what happened to K-Fed on that new show?”
No, I don’t. I don’t know because I didn’t watch and I didn’t watch because I don’t care. Though, in yet another moment of weakness, with a toothy grin and eyebrows raised, I hear myself say: “Oh, what happened?”
And in that fatal move I commit myself to a blow-by-blow recount of a program I never in my wildest nightmares wanted to hear about. Why? Because I have an addiction: I’m addicted to being polite and it’s getting out of hand.
Now don’t get me wrong, I know how to fling my fair share of bile. Behind a keyboard I am a suave comedian full of bravado but beyond the screen sits an impish yes-man. So desperate is my desire to say the right thing I regularly fail to connect with my closest friends, spending my energy focusing on the correct response as opposed to listening. Like a bloke who can’t get it up in the bedroom I stress about the situation and my reactions, making things worse and worse before going into escape mode.
This, I believe, is an all too common affliction. We need a support group: Polite Powder Puffs Anonymous.
Deep down we crave to be engaged in a hearty conflict and sitting on the fence is rarely the most comfortable seating arrangement. I cringe as I hear fellow addicts describing food as “nice” and movies as “different”, taking that familiar flight under the radar. We’ve convinced ourselves not only to avoid saying what we truly think but that we should emulate the thoughts of others. It is a struggle and the road is long though I believe we can achieve freedom from this prison of false politeness.
Question: If Mother Theresa can piss a few people off in her old age why do we waste our energy laughing at awful jokes or hearing out ‘benign’ stories of how drunk someone was on Saturday night? We, as victims of our own abuse, have been hollowed out by pick axes of banality and accumulated days, even weeks of boring conversation devoid of art, sex or anything of actual value. But to boldly go where so few of us have gone before we must confront a clash of social virtues: being polite versus telling the terrifying truth. We have to ask why we take the easy road: Why do we accept gifts we’d never want or agree to the coffee-date we know will end badly? Maybe it’s because we remember how much it hurts when someone says no to us, we play along lest someone might get hurt or worse, it might get awkward.
Picking politeness over honesty has made life terribly dull. My family was a fighting one so when it came to Sunday dinner the old rule applied: no politics or religion at the table, it’s one that I’ve carried with me my whole life. This rule is based on the assumption we’re not intelligent enough to resist punching each other’s head in at the first sign of disagreement, which is a shame as it can also lead to adventurous, character building conversation.
I recently realised how unaccustomed I was to arguments after watching two friends, both named Tom, verbal volleying over the classic “Monarchy vs. Republic Australia”. I kept my head down as the two Tom’s went at it; both sides of the argument firing up, both refusing to cushion their frustrations. It was tense and personal but from my position, hiding under the table, I could see disagreement was not detracting from friendship, in fact it was building a mutual respect for the other’s ability to make a point and more importantly to be passionate in their beliefs. Perhaps Tom offended Tom. Perhaps Tom wanted to pull out Tom’s hair? But both Toms, being adults, still offered to pay for the meal at the end of the day. It would seem, as difficult as it may be, taking a moment to remember who you are disagreeing with as opposed to only what you disagree lets us be truthful to those around us who deserve it most. If it’s people’s admiration we are seeking by acting a certain way surely a few moments of bravery on our part is easier than a lifetime switching our opinion from person to person.
At no place have pitfalls of politeness been more prevalent in my life than at work. Here status and rank is almost the sole factor in gauging just how forward people are choosing to be. Unfortunately, as a lowly worker-bee, I dedicated most of my time building a long list of calculated reactions to my boss’ ‘fabulous weekend away’ and learning the perfect way to say ‘team player’. This was at times an exercise in keeping my job though in hindsight I can see being eternally pleasant only proved one thing: I was pleasant. If that is your end goal, well, excuse me while I go rent some Disney classics to watch while you work on morale building activities. Genuine debate, especially in the office, is incredibly influential. I personally screwed countless opportunities being softly spoken about second-rate projects only to find somebody with a spine spoke up and was promoted.
So what is the balance? How do we remain decent people whilst being straight forward with our thoughts? Can we disagree without ruining Christmas? And when will I finally get the balls to tell my friends to shut up about who lost how much weight and got kicked off the island?! My guess is the answer comes with practice. The more we are honest the more we’ll realise those around us are, hopefully, only trying to do the same. Yes, once in a while we must all hear out Grandma’s winding tales of the good old days but if we are forever fighting or bored stiff by what those in the room have to say perhaps it’s time we politely show ourselves the door.
Feel free to agree to disagree but personally, I’m trying to kick the habit.
Brendan is a regular presenter at Triple J, a singer and an actor. He is also an obsessive compulsive Tweeter – you should follow him here
Where is YOUR balance?