08 March 2013

La politesse

Sitting Woman, by Thomas Houseago, Parcours l'art a l'endroite à Aix en Provence Jan-Feb. 2013 Place l'universite
On this International Women's Day, I am reminded of Caitlin Moran's suggestion in her book How to be a woman (2012) that the basic goal of feminism can really be broken down to the pursuit of basic politeness in society.  That we should treat each other with civility, regardless of our gender seems pretty reasonable, and it's even more appealing to me, if that call for politeness extends beyond gender, where we extend civil behavior to all, regardless of age, ethnoracial origin, or other social features.  Treating everyone politely would make it much harder for us to overlook or treat people poorly or less than equally.  After all, that is a basic lesson of humanism.

Regardless of whether we are pursuing politeness in the name of feminism or humanism, la politesse (politeness) does pose some challenges because many aspects of civil behavior are in fact cultural, even if the basic idea of civility is universal.  For example, here in France, politeness is tied up in the French language and discourse as it is in many other languages, which poses challenges for English-speakers.  There is the polite vous form that I have to remember to use when speaking to people that I do not know well or with whom some social distance is appropriate: school teachers, market vendors, shop clerks.  (Its equivalent in Finnish has slipped so much that I never properly learned to use it particularly since I had few opportunities to use it, and in English, well, you is you).  Then there are the polite French phrases that are still used quite regularly; the obligatory bonjours and au revoirs when entering a shop are easy enough, but it is the enchantées (nice to meet you) and the avec plaisirs (with pleasure) that trip me up because they seem so flowery.  On the other hand, I also find the 'you're welcome' confusing here.  Very formally one says je vous en prie, but most people say de rien which to my ear sounds dismissive and ungraceful because its direct translation implies 'it's nothing' even though it is a perfectly acceptable and very popular response to merci.   In American English we have slipped into the usage of  'no problem' as a response to thank you, which a friend and I agreed we didn't like for the same reasons de rien resonates poorly with me.  I want my thank you to be accepted firmly, perhaps even avec plaisir (with pleasure)!

Certainly, my understanding of Moran is that she is referring to much more than just how we greet people on the street (and we know that the actions accompanying the language we use also vary significantly, from the bisous that French give each other on their cheeks, to the handshakes or head nods or bows that others do).  Moran is advocating politeness in all aspects of our lives and in all societies.  For example, are we being polite in how we treat people at work or at home?  Are we being polite about how we hire people, pay them, evaluate them, promote or move them, and even let them go?  Are we being polite in our exchanges with people in our daily routines, at school, at home, in our shopping?  Are we sharing, are we taking turns, are we being mindful of each other?  Unfortunately, we still have much work to do in this regard.  My SOC 101 students got a look at some impolite wage gaps in the U.S. in class this week (click here and see if you feel as outraged as several of my SOC 101 students: Why is her paycheck smaller, May 18, 2010. The New York Times), and similar wage gaps exist in France too. (Le salaire des femmes dans le privé inférieur de 28% à celui des hommes, March 8, 2013, Le Monde)  Politeness is more than just saying the polite words; it is also in doing the polite, or by extension, the fair, or equal thing.

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