Despite its fondness for elaborate rituals, higher education really isn’t all that polite. Every campus has its faculty or staff member(s) who are notoriously fractious and hard to work with, and, more generally, higher education doesn’t really select for “playing well with others.” (Indeed, if you Google “academic decorum,” a result on the first page includes musings on whether creativity and collegiality are truly compatible.) Higher education’s traditional employment practices can mean that people have the opportunity to nurse grudges over extended periods of time.
Paul Ford’s recent essay, “How to Be Polite,” offers sustained courtesy--understood here as, minimally, respect for others (Do. Not. Touch. Other. People’s. Hair. Just . . . No. [How can it be 2014 and this still needs to be explained? But it does!]), but extending into a kind of all-encompassing empathy--as an undervalued professional survival skill:
For example, after two years ago at the end of an arduous corporate project, slowly turning a thousand red squares in a spreadsheet to yellow, then green, my officemate turned to me and said: “I thought you were a terrible ass-kisser when we started working together.”
She paused and frowned. “But it actually helped get things done. It was a strategy.” (That is how an impolite person gives a compliment. Which I gladly accepted.)
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.
Ford’s essay explores a few dimensions of courtesy: its role as self-protection; its deference to others; and the way that even this path of self-protection and deference can lead to “a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy.” Its tone is light, not hectoring, so it’s definitely worth reading the whole thing.
There are many opportunities, in an academic setting, to practice this form of sustained politeness--even while being critical. (My most cherished memory of being president of a faculty union was when a member praised my “ability to tell someone to [go to hell] without it sounding insulting.”) One special point I would make in the context of higher ed is that having a flexible memory is important. On the one hand, I would not want anyone to risk harm to their person or career by indiscriminately “having a short memory.” People who are bullies or harassers need to be held accountable or avoided, not drawn out in an elaborate social ritual. On the other hand, I also think it’s useful if we give people some space for self-reinvention. Instead of using *every* difference in perspective as a chance to revisit the Great Intradepartmental Civil War of 2005, or even just that time that jerk beat you to your preferred parking spot, taking a breath and sorting out issues on their contemporary merits surely has a place.
- This isn’t about tone. I’m not interested in being part of the tone police, which feels like an attempt to muffle dissent.
- Relatedly, it’s probably somewhat easier to endorse Ford’s politeness from positions of relative privilege. That said, I think we’re all capable of wishing that people in positions of privilege imagined that people have “around them a two or three foot invisible buffer . . . Whatever happens inside that buffer is entirely up to them. It has nothing to do with me.”
- Also, I’m extraordinarily reluctant to impose politeness as a requirement, because I’ve too often seen concerns over “collegiality” used as a fig leaf for some pretty shady practices. So if we can imagine that I’m endorsing Ford’s practice of courtesy without in any way suggesting people should be formally sanctioned for lapses in politeness, that would be lovely. Thanks!
How about you? Do you practice strategic courtesy? What works for you?