You Don't Have to Be Polite, But You Might Be Punished If You're Not

Manager showing inappropriate behavior towards young female co-worker
Manager showing inappropriate behavior towards young female co-worker

The first episode of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" includes a great joke about the societal pressures on women to be polite. According to the New York Times:

There's a delicious scene in the first episode of "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," Tina Fey's comedy about a woman rescued from an apocalypse cult. Freshly liberated from their underground prison, Kimmy and the other hostages go on the "Today" show, where Matt Lauer asks them how they fell into captivity.

One of the women, Cyndee, says she was abducted while working at a restaurant. "Yes, I had waited on Reverend Richard a bunch of times at a York Steakhouse I worked at, and one night he invited me out to his car to see some baby rabbits, and I didn't want to be rude so ... here we are," she says.

"I'm always amazed at what women will do because they're afraid of being rude," Lauer replies.

Most women can think back to some time when they encountered a creepy guy, or just simply didn't feel like talking, but felt like they needed to politely nod along or find some delicate way to extricate themselves from the conversation. There's a complicated set of calculations that goes into deciding how to respond: are you alone, are you in a public place, is feigned politeness the fastest way to cut things short? Women are taught to feel like we owe men something, even if they're strangers and we've expressed no desire to engage with them. I was once walking down the street with a friend when a random guy said, "Hey ladies, you want some company?" I was continuing to walk on stone-faced, while my friend cheerily replied, "No, thanks, but thank you for the offer!" It was an extreme example probably influenced by a small-town upbringing, but it speaks to how ingrained it is that we must preserve our image as polite people.

Jeff Guo writes about this issue in relation to a new opinion poll that confirms a "gender gap in civility." Men and women were asked their opinions about various "rude" behaviors and whether they participate in them.

Curiously, they ask about whether it is acceptable to make fun of someone's race or gender. More men than women deemed this behavior acceptable. I hope most people recognize sexism and racism as on another level than garden-variety "rudeness" or "incivility." But they also examine behaviors that aren't objectively harmful but deemed impolite. According to the New York Times:

Men are also more liberal in their attitudes about swearing. About 27 percent say that it is okay for people to use swear words in public, compared to 19 percent of women. And 29 percent of men condone the use of the f-word in conversations, compared to 21 percent of women.

The gender disparity sharpens when it comes to people's own behavior. Men are twice as likely to say they drop the f-bomb at least once a day. About 31 percent of men report a daily f-word habit, compared to 16 percent of women.

I did not know my daily dropping of the f-bomb put me in such an elite group of women. Guo goes on to link the poll to other studies about how differently men's and women's behavior is interpreted and what is perceived as "rude." As he points out, the "Kimmy Schmidt" joke hints at the complex nature of this problem. According to the New York Times:

The abduction joke in "Kimmy Schmidt" is clever because it operates on both these levels. It lampoons the norms that impose silence and deference on women. But it also makes fun of people who think that gender equality could be achieved if only women were more assertive. Lauer's overly knowing quip ("I'm always amazed at what women will do because they're afraid of being rude") caricatures this "lean-in" brand of thinking.

As with a lot of women's behavior, there's never one right answer. Over the years, I've grown more and more comfortable with bluntly shutting down random men who are just a nuisance. Often in these situations, the behavior that would be called rude is just being clear and upfront about our desires and protective of our time and space. But taking that control isn't always going to work. In fact, it can have violent and even deadly consequences for women.

What's your relationship with so-called "rude" behavior? Do you often find yourself softening your approach rather than dealing with the consequences of being perceived as rude?