Andrew Pilsch Blog

On Being Polite

13 Aug 2014

Paul Ford’s story1 about etiquette, “How to be Polite”, passed through my social media today. Really good stuff. It got me thinking about etiquette and rhetoric.

I don’t know if I qualify as polite, but I feel like being raised around old-school Southerners, I was exposed to a lot of ambient politeness, so a lot of this story resonated with me (I also have a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette sitting on my desk, atm). Especially:

1) The section about hair touching. I, like the author, have always been horrified by stories of white people touching black peoples’ hair. Like the author, not because of any sense of racism: it’s fundamentally impolite to touch another person without asking. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? I feel the same way about catcalling women in public. It makes me think large segments of our population were raised by wolves. Or that they’re aliens. Literally, I cannot understand why anyone would ever do this. Like, my mind rejects it as a notion. Politeness, even my probably incomplete politeness, is a complete and total world-view.

2) “Not having an opinion means not having an obligation.” THIS. Not forming opinions of people and basically being nice all the time is so much easier. I’ve been explained the idea (by people from The North, btw) that you might as well be rude to people, because who cares, but it takes so much energy to be rude all the time. And besides, being super nice (esp. to bureaucrats and service workers) confuses and charms people. Seriously, being nice to everyone is easier in the long run.

3) “One thing about being polite is that you know that within you there lurks an incredibly impolite person.” As Ford points out in his article,

She was surprised to see the stubborn power of politeness over time. Over time. That’s the thing. Mostly we talk about politeness in the moment. Please, thank you, no go ahead, I like your hat, cool shoes, you look nice today, please take my seat, sir, ma’am, etc. All good, but fleeting.

While being polite is probably more work than being rude (and the truth that a rude person lurks just inside each of us bears this out), in the long run, it isn’t. Politeness, as I’ve mentioned, is the key to lubricating a lot of social situations.

I’d also add as an aside for anyone on the academic job market this year, learn to follow some of these basic politeness rules for when you get campus visits (assuming you’re lucky enough). Nothing makes you look more enthusiastic about a department than adapting Ford’s party trick (“Oh, that sounds hard”) to hearing about teaching and research initiatives. Let the people you meet talk to you about themselves and be interested.

Etiquette and Rhetoric, Etiquette As Rhetoric?

All of this got me thinking about similarities between systems of rhetorical education and Emily Post’s Etiquette, amongst other guides to proper behavior. First published in 1922, Etiquette offered seasoned advice from a Gilded Age debutante on how to behave in polite society. In other words, as this blog post on Emily Post explains, the book “was originally written for the nouveau riche who wanted to live, entertain, and speak like the ‘old-money’ society members.” As people made money in a rapidly expanding stock market or in an emergent, post-Civil-War industrial sector, the problem of how to adapt to the environs of the upper class drawing room became paramount. If you’re interested in this transition, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (which I’m teaching this semester has some great stuff on the topic.

However, as this review of Post’s biography makes clear, the manual soon transitioned into a general course on American mores for a rapidly expanding immigrant population, who wanted to adapt to American social ways of life as quickly as possible. Bracketing the question of assimilation and the assumptions about Americanness raised by these kind of operations, what strikes me about both versions of Post’s work (I have the latter, immigrant targeted one and have consulted it on a number of occasions) is their similarity to rhetorical education courses throughout history.

As you probably know, the formalization of rhetoric as a set of methods and procedures more or less began with the formal rhetorical education offered by The Sophists in Ancient Greece. These freelance rhetors offered education in eloquence and persuasion to the wealthy in Greek city states as a means of influencing the fledgling democracies that governed many of these states. As such, this kind of systematized training became a necessary adaptation to a society in which the ability to persuade ones peers was the means to advance a cause.

Isn’t this the same with etiquette? I mean, like, exactly the same?

Wharton’s stories are littered with ill-behaved wives who torpedo their husbands’ careers through not knowing how to follow the rules of the drawing room, rules Emily Post partly helped to codify. And like rhetorical education, while these rules weren’t actual hard-and-fast, the ability to portray them as such promised a quick-fix scheme to the various problems poised by social ecosystems that prize a certain je ne se quoi.

As a for instance, have you heard the rule that you can’t wear white after Labor Day? But do you know why you can’t? As this article from Mental Floss shows, its because of the systematization of etiquette:

The wives of the super-rich ruled high society with an iron fist after the Civil War. As more and more people became millionaires, though, it was difficult to tell the difference between old money, respectable families, and those who only had vulgar new money. By the 1880s, in order to tell who was acceptable and who wasn’t, the women who were already “in” felt it necessary to create dozens of fashion rules that everyone in the know had to follow. That way, if a woman showed up at the opera in a dress that cost more than most Americans made in a year, but it had the wrong sleeve length, other women would know not to give her the time of day.

Not wearing white outside the summer months was another one of these silly rules.

So, by way of a conclusion, I’m wondering: if rhetoric originated as a series of rules to help rich dudes speak more eloquently in the polis and etiquette originated as a series of rules to help rich dudes and their wives pass as old rich instead of new rich2 in the space of the Gilded Age metropolis, what’s the difference? I mean, I know there are differences, obviously. Rhetoric has a much longer scholastic tradition within the Western academy, but, at the same time, what if rhetoric is just democratic and academic etiquette?

  1. Medium informed me via Twitter after Monday’s post that this is the proper term for a unit of writing on their site. Good to know! 

  2. Don’t get me started on how hard this point is to explain to students when teaching House of Mirth. Even after repeating it for two weeks, I still don’t think they understood that rich people hierarchize each other just as much as anything. I think this points to how bad Americans are at thinking about class, but that’s another post for another day. 


Andrew Pilsch

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