English ‘Humble’ Politeness

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Politeness – Where English and French Agree

When it comes to good manners both the English and Frenchman in me are equally convinced that in a civilized society generally-agreed codes of respect and consideration towards others – especially when strangers or barely known – are vital in reducing the risk of conflict or offence in the requests, agreements, refusals, apologies, greetings and partings which are so much a part of our everyday lives. Both are also not without knowing that polite behaviour consists in maintaining a fine balance between showing you think well of others, and not giving others the impression you think too well of yourself.

‘I’m sorry but could you …?’

My Frenchman is inclined to think it is those Puritan values of modest self-effacement and informal simplicity which have caused your English politeness to incline less towards showing others (in appearance at least) you think well of yourselves, and more towards demonstrating to others that you think well of them. For he will never cease to be surprised by the monotonous frequency with which you use those words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and, above all, by the humble, apologetic type of civility you generally adopt towards those who are paid to serve you directly. I mean, who else but you English could thank the dustbin man for being considerate enough to empty your wheelie bin, the postman for going so far out of his way to pop your mail through the letterbox, and the bus driver for showing such exquisite courtesy in actually bringing his vehicle to a halt at your stop? And I will never understand why, in a café, you say, ‘Could I possibly have a Cappuccino and a Brownie please?’ or, ‘I’m awfully sorry to bother you but could I have the bill, please?’ in such a deferential tone of voice, when it’s the waitress’s job to do exactly this. Or, when the home help arrives in the morning, instead of giving her polite but firm instructions on what you require to be done, you give the house a good clean beforehand, and then apologize for the mess it’s in when she finally turns up!

‘You could be right but …’

What’s more, I’d be willing to bet my bottom euro that there isn’t another country on our planet where direct rectification, disagreement or contradiction is perceived as being tantamount to a declaration of war. I mean, it can only be you English who, when you find yourselves in the embarrassing position of having to correct a mistake, will go to such extraordinarily apologetic lengths to point out that what you’re about to say should in no way be considered a criticism, but stems merely from the wish to explain. Though I’d be the first to admit that the rules of politeness oblige us – often hypocritically – to conceal our true feelings and opinions so as to minimize the risk of conflict with others, you take this to ridiculous extremes. I really don’t know any other people who, instead of declaring, ‘No, I disagree with you entirely!’ will go to such extraordinary lengths to reply, ‘Well, you certainly might have a point but, on the other hand, don’t you think that… ?’ when they are intimately convinced you’re talking unmitigated rubbish. Now let’s be honest. How can you possibly trust someone who systematically professes to agree with everything you say?

The ‘Businessman’ on the Train

Moreover, I might even go so far as to say that your English reluctance to indulge in what could be remotely construed as straight-to-the-point discord would appear to be even stronger than your puritanically-inspired distrust of outward show. Take that occasion when, after landing in England early one Friday evening, I caught a train from the airport station. The next stop was a large town where the train filled up with people going home from work. Barely had I settled down to have a quiet read when my attention was drawn to a pin-stripe-suited gentleman sitting at the far end of the carriage who had just begun talking loudly into his cell phone – so loudly, in fact, that it would have taken someone with the hearing capacities of a stone to have escaped what he was saying.The gentleman, we were quickly made to understand, occupied some high managerial position in an insurance company, and his discussions were focused on the financial consequences of a fire which, apparently, had ravaged the premises of a large local company the previous day. But just as one interminable conversation ended, someone else was contacted, and more or less the same sort of discussion began again.

A One-Man Show

I remember thinking it strange that he should be disclosing to any Tom, Dick or Harry what normally would have called for quiet discretion, when the truth of the matter suddenly dawned. The financial discussions were secondary. The main aim of all this was to impress upon the captive audience of a commuter train’s second class carriage that they had been granted the privilege of sharing a moment in the professional life of a man who had nothing to envy a Dallas soap opera oil baron. In short, he was just showing off. Now, had we been in France it would certainly have been politely but firmly brought to his notice at an early stage that this one-man ego show was becoming intrusive. It might even have been pointed out that, given their confidential nature, his discussions might be more appropriately confined to the privacy of his office. But here in England everybody bore up with the fortitude of a Stoic philosopher resigning himself to unavoidable necessity: not a word of complaint was to be heard, and we were subjected to an hour or more of uninterrupted talk (the businessman’s telephonic partners were strangely mute).

Put to Shame

However, our man, I noted, repeatedly made the same, rather amusing grammatical errors: he was, for example, particularly fond of beginning his sentences with ‘But, the point being is that… ‘. I mustn’t have been the only person to have noticed this, for a young woman sitting nearby could control herself no longer, and burst out into a fit of uncontrolled laughter – so contagious, in fact, that it quickly spread to most of the carriage’s occupants. It took only a couple of minutes for our businessman to realize that in the eyes of his audience his performance was being perceived more and more as that of a clown: for he promptly lowered his voice to an inaudible whisper, and a few seconds later sheepishly switched off his mobile before seeking shameful refuge behind the outstretched pages of his Financial Times.

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