The Illusion of Consistency, And Playing The Odds Of Politeness
Humans want absolute certainty, and they will fold, spindle, and mutilate other human beings to get that illusion of perfect consistency.
The easiest example of that is politeness.
Politeness is, on the surface, an awesome idea. People get stressed because they have a terror of offending people – what if you say the wrong thing and make them mad at you? Suddenly, every meeting with a new person is this wild gamble – what conversational topics will offend them? What level of bodily contact will they find acceptable, whether that’s a hug or a handshake or a stiff nod? When is it okay to introduce yourself?
Every time you meet someone new, it’s a roll of the dice. You might insult someone. You might actually make the wrong decision and have someone loathe you – which is scary! (And if you have social anxiety, you probably feel those odds keener than other people do.)
Enter politeness – a social construct where we all agree on weird things like, “When you meet people, you should shake hands and say ‘hello,’ and then talk about neutral topics like the weather.”
Basically, politeness is a way of reducing the uncertainty in social interactions. If everyone around you knows the standards of politeness, then “Doing what’s expected” will lead to positive reactions more often than not.
And if you run into someone who’s germaphobic and thus doesn’t shake hands, they should – in theory – understand that you meant no harm by offering the handshake, it’s just customary. At which point, in an ideal and sane world, you can override the generic standards of politeness with that person’s personal stated preferences.
Which is a sane, wonderful thing to do! Basically, every around you quietly agrees on a set number of actions you undertake until you know someone better, at which point you quietly switch from the I-don’t-know-you-that-well mode default behavior and into the oh-yes-we’ve-met behaviors.
(It gets a little awkward if someone doesn’t know the local rules of politeness, but there’s no universal fix for these sorts of issues.)
Politeness changes the odds. Maybe once there was like a 40% chance of total awkwardness if you talked to a stranger, but shared conventions reduced that chance to 5%.
Which is awesome. I am totally in favor of reducing awkwardness wherever possible.
Yet here’s the folding, spindling, and mutilating bit: people will get so attached to the reduction of uncertainty that politeness brings them that they’ll start to prioritize the rules over people.
The easiest example of that is “Merry Christmas.”
Time was that saying “Merry Christmas” was a social construct that provided an illusion of consistency. When the snow was falling and the Christmas trees were up, you could say “Merry Christmas!” to anyone while you were out shopping and people were socially obligated to smile back at you.
Now, keep in mind that not everyone wanted to smile back at you. People who were Jewish may have felt understandably pissy that saying “Merry Christmas!” meant that non-believers were required to translate your holiday greeting into a generic sentiment of “Good wishes!” – but if you said “Happy Hanukkah!” to someone instead, suddenly some significant percentage of Christians would get furious because they were not obligated to translate Jewish sentiments into generic good wishes. (And God forbid a black man said something to an unsuspecting white person about Kwanzaa.)
Likewise, there’s people who don’t think of Christmas as a positive event, and so to them wishing people Merry Christmas is akin to affirming other people’s
sick habits of spending themselves into bankruptcy for no good reason. Yet the social constructs of politeness required them to say it back, or they were the dick.
And yet, over the years, that definition of politeness has quietly changed. A significant number of people have come to realize that whoah, actually, this whole “Merry Christmas” thing can be a little unfair and obscuring of non-Christmas-having faiths. So “Happy Holidays!” became the default.
And the interesting thing is that most of these folks probably aren’t really upset about “Merry Christmas” as such. What they’re actually upset about is that at one point the odds of offending someone with a jaunty “Merry Christmas!” were so low that they never even had to think about it, and suddenly those odds have changed.
Now there’s some 10% chance that saying “Merry Christmas!” might be met with an implication that they’re the dick. They’re fretting all the time because their formerly sure-fire greeting has a chance of misfire… and they fucking hate that.
And rather than saying, “Oh, wow, every social interaction (no matter how minor) has some percentage of going awry, and circumstances have changed so that people are free to express a distress they’ve always actually held and yet were constrained by social constructs until now, so maybe I should alter my behavior to lower my risk of offense in the future”….
These people weaponize politeness by saying, “ANYONE WHO DOESN’T FOLLOW THE RULES I GREW UP LEARNING IS AN OVERLY-SENSITIVE ASSHOLE.”
In other words, they’re willing to fold, spindle, and mutilate other human beings’ emotions so long as they get to hold on to this precious idea that “following this rule means nobody can be mean to me ever.”
But the truth is this: there’s no interaction you can have that doesn’t risk offending someone somewhere. Every time you speak is a gamble – you can minimize that risk with politeness, and clarity of speaking, and knowing who you’re speaking to, but every time you open your mouth you might hurt someone’s feelings.
And the proper answer to that is not “Well, fuck all those people” or “Please shut the hell up for my convenience” but to accept that communication is not a certainty, and to accept that risk of accidental injury, and to look at every situation individually to decide whether that person is justified in being hurt or whether you think they’re being unreasonable. (Because sometimes, yes, they’re being unreasonable.)
And you see that certainty everywhere – here’s the young guys getting furious because they followed the rules their older friends taught them to pick up women at a bar, and the women who that patter doesn’t work on are “bitches.” Here’s the people who are furious because the terms for trans people and black people keep transforming (in part because people keep turning the mere names for these states of being into an insult, but that’s another essay for another time), and they’re furious because dammit they should be able to learn one term always and never have to change it ever again. Here’s the Baby Boomers who are furious because they got taught to say “You’re welcome” and the Millennials say “No problem” instead and that makes them feel awkward even if the Millennials don’t mean it as awkward so you Millennials stop saying that right now it’s rude.
But here’s the trick: Prioritize people over rules whenever possible. You can’t do it all the time, because “people” are not a uniform mass and someone risks getting offended whatever you do. (I keep seeing various minorities standing up and speaking for all their fellow minorities as if they were a hive mind, only to be snarled up by debates from very visible and very dissenting other members of that minority culture.)
But you know, realize that any idea you have of “If I do this, I’ll never offend anyone” is a lie that you’re telling yourself in order to make you feel comfortable. Recognize that this lie suppresses people in order to perpetuate an illusion that does not, in fact, exist.
Recognize that you’re always risking discomfort when you talk to people. And that’s okay. You shouldn’t need certainty to thrive, because it doesn’t really exist anyway.
Be comfortable with percentages instead of certainty.
Well, be as comfortable as you can.