Good manners cost nothing, so they say. But when confronted with the darker side of human behaviour, is this the best approach?
Being polite, is great isn’t it? As characteristics go, it’s a collective national treasure. Read any witticism from the Twitter sensation Very British Problems and you’ll recognise the anxiety-inducing need to be polite, often to the point of self-sacrifice. It is something many of us will have had drummed into us as children: don’t make too much noise, don’t annoy other people, say please, say thank you, respond in a certain way when asked a question by someone older than you.
This is no bad thing; after all, manners make the world go round (or so we are led to believe), but being polite, accommodating and courteous has a darker side. Always putting others first is to take away from ourselves. It can be dis-empowering.
If you travel by public transport, you’ll know what I mean. You’ve probably conducted an internal rant at the fact you always seem to be giving way and making room for someone to the detriment of your own comfort – that there are those who make space, and those who take it. If, like me, you’re ‘lucky’ to be tall, you’ll be familiar with the huffing that travels your way when you sit on a cramped train, on account of your legs daring to exist. You could stand up and make life easier for whoever it is that sits opposite (and you’ve probably considered doing so, because you’re polite), but just how much space – literally and figuratively – should we be expected to relinquish? Where do we draw the line at being polite, and being submissive?
One of the things I’m proud of is my conduct towards others (thanks, parents), and in so many public contexts I am aware that I put others’ comfort, convenience and general selfishness before my own; but I am also aware that by doing this, I put myself in a position of weakness, and give the impression that it is ok. And I know I’m not the only one.
So why do it? Why do we so often let people walk all over us? (Often literally, when commuting across London) I think it comes down in part to this: most women – and no doubt, many men – have needed to placate a stranger at some point in their lives in order to get them to go away, leave them alone, to stop intruding on their space or feeling of safety. I know I have. Even a cursory trip down memory lane brings up some ultimately depressing examples.
As he got up to leave, he pushed his face against me, wheeled his bike off the train then smashed his fists against the window where I sat. The other man in the carriage shot me a sheepish look and went back to staring out of his window
The first time I was made to feel like this, I was 12-years-old. As I walked home from school, a man driving a white van pulled over onto the pavement in front of me, wound down the window and asked me to get in, for ‘some fun’. He became agitated as I said ‘no thank you’ and tried to walk away, he asked again, then started the engine and drove slowly alongside me until he had to move on for traffic. I was 12, in school uniform. Just think about that for a second.
Fast forward ten years and I was travelling home on the train from an evening out, on what was then called the East London Line, at about 10pm. In a carriage with one other passenger, I sat in one of the booths, next to the window. A man with a bike got on the train, sat opposite me and blocked my exit with his bike. He started mumbling something at me, then angrily proclaimed that if I made a noise, he would take the gun out of his pocket. There was definitely something in his pocket, so I dared not question him. He spent a good ten minutes rant-mumbling and blocking my exit, while the other man in the carriage pretended not to hear; as I sat, silently nodding, trying not to show fear or cry. As he got up to leave, he pushed his face against me, wheeled his bike off the train then smashed his fists against the window where I sat. The other man in the carriage shot me a sheepish look and went back to staring out of his window.
And then, some time ago, a friend and I were the unhappy recipients of what the police termed ‘a little bit of stalking’. Which, in reality, amounted to a prolonged visitation of a large, camera-toting man across the street from our front door – morning and night – lurking, photographing and approaching us with things he had ‘observed’ we might like.
One day, a police officer rang the doorbell and I buzzed him in. As I heard his heavy footsteps approach the top floor, the penny dropped. As it did, I heard myself say “You are not a police officer,” as I slammed the door in the face of the large, camera-toting man. He was in my building, on the other side of my flimsy internal door, and there was no hope of anyone knowing. So I did the only thing I could do. I placated, said ‘please’, spoke quietly. Said ‘thank you’ when he pushed his police ID (a local library card) under the door for my peace of mind. I calmly asked him to come back with the Police Inspector I had previously spoken with, and explained that I would let them both in together. I waited, shaking, sweating, dry-mouthed, breathless.
Somehow, it worked, and I heard the footsteps fade away back down the three flights of stairs. I couldn’t bring myself to look out of the window to actually check he had gone, but I did vomit.
Luckily, it seemed, my placating manners had saved me from the fate of the other woman who opened her door to him a week later, whom he attempted to rape on the doorstep.
So, there you have it – just a few, unpleasant examples in a lifetime of micro – and macro –aggressions. And those are just my experiences; and ones that don’t take much to summon to the fore. Speak to any other woman in London, at least, and I guarantee there’ll be many more.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an anti-men manifesto. Although I’m not certain that this is a feminist issue, (although at the least, it is something that concerns women, a lot), it is definitely one of personal safety, confidence, and probably empowerment. It is a call to women, and those who feel that they give too much, to take back a little space; to not automatically look at the floor, or out of the window.
So where do we – and should we – draw the line?
For starters, it would go a long way if we all take a little more time to consider how we make those around us feel by our – often unconscious – actions. And by that, I mean how close we walk behind each other, or where we choose to cross the road at night. To pay attention when people act out on public transport, to take back some public spirit. And to those, like me, who often feel too polite and nervous to stand up for their own space: do it. Just try. And do it with a genuine smile, not an apology.
I’ll continue to be polite and to take responsibility for my safety; because I need to, but also because I want to. Because I want to be generous and unselfish. Because I want to share good manners. I’m also happy to share my knee-space on the train, if you’re happy not to huff.