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Archive for July, 2014

I knew that marrying Trish was a good idea when we both chose the same moment to propose. Better yet, we both had the same condition: she wouldn’t change her name.

This condition was more complicated that it would have been for most people. Trish had been recently widowed when we met, and she had changed her name because her first husband wanted to. However, she had changed her views since then, and didn’t want to go through updating her identity a second time, whether she took my name or returned to her original surname. Besides, she considered her first marriage an important moment in her maturation. The choice seemed completely personal, and we imagined that nobody would think it anybody’s business except ours.

We couldn’t have been more wrong. Everybody felt entitled to advise us – and most wasted no time in telling us that we were wrong. One of Trish’s co-workers, for example, proclaimed in the middle of the office that it was a woman’s “honor and privilege to change her name.” Others insisted that having separate names would be confusing for any children, and they would be stigmatized, or assumed to be her first husband’s – even though, at the time, a couple’s children automatically took their father’s name.

Strangest of all were those who chose to be insulted on my behalf. Although I had made my agreement very clear, some friends and relatives insisted that I was simply putting on a brave front. The choice showed a mental reservation about our marriage, they claimed; Trish was showing a commitment to her first husband that she was refusing to make to me. I should be jealous, even though he was dead.

I did my best to explain. Whenever the matter came up, I said that Trish’s first marriage was part of who she was – that, without it, she might not even be the person I loved. I suggested that I would be selfish to ask her to hide the fact of her first marriage – and that, although I might expect a preference, the choice was really hers.

But nothing I said made any difference. As late as the wedding rehearsal, people were telling us how wrong the decision was, and why it should concern me. I spent the night before the ceremony writing a letter for the priest to read to family members who objected, but whether he ever did, I have no idea. I suspect he may have thought inaction the best course, to let the issue peter out, since we obviously weren’t going to change our minds.

And, in fact, that was what happened. Every once and a while, a family member or two would disinter the issue as another grievance in the middle of another argument, but mostly it didn’t matter. It was even mentioned a couple of weeks ago, although Trish has been dead four years now.

My view now is unchanged from what it was at the time. I marvel at how free people feel to interfere with a personal choice, and I’m left in no doubt that Trish and I made the right choice. The custom of changing a woman’s name when she marries has always seemed dehumanizing to me, and I am proud that we resisted it, and maybe helped in our own small way to make it less of an issue.

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When I was in Grade Six, I was precocious and outspoken. My mother, worried that I might be rude at school, asked my teacher if I was a problem in class. “Not at all,” my teacher replied. “He’s always so polite when he corrects me.” He then went on to compare me with a classmate whose corrections were far less diplomatic.

This story, which I heard about hours after it happened, was my first indication of the power of politeness. It taught me that not only could I get away with saying almost anything, so long as I said it politely enough, but that people would listen to a polite comment where they would close their ears a rude one. It’s a perspective that is rare today, when many people consider expressions of anger their right and politeness a form of weakness. Yet the truth is, it’s only one of the advantages that makes politeness (or at least its facade) worth cultivating.

No doubt as a born and bred Canadian, I value politeness more than most people, but I also consider my perspective a pragmatic one. For example, most of the time, you get more cooperation from people with politeness. This observation is especially true when you are dealing with those in the service industry, or others who are usually taken for granted.

Being polite to such people signals that you are viewing them as people, not just bit players in your personal drama. Often, they appreciate the effort enough that if you ask for something unusual, such as a substitution on the menu, they will be give it to you – even if the menu clearly states that no substitutions are allowed. If you are in a store, they are likely to go look in the back for what you want instead of simply telling you that all they have is on the shelf. If the other person is a customs officer, or someone else with potential authority over you, then you will often be forgiven minor infringements of the regulations, simply because you made a small bit of effort and treated them as human.

Should a situation descend into an argument, the appearance of politeness remains useful. Screaming insults may be personally satisfying, but politeness has a way of disarming your opponent. They may shout at you, but shouting at someone who remains polite and apparently calm is strangely unsatisfying. You are not responding the way they expect, and before very long they are likely to either stomp off in frustration or else start listening to you. Almost always, the calm person is the one who controls the situation, and looks best to the audience – and, in the end, it is their perspective and solutions that are adopted.

If all else fails, you can always adopt the kind of icy politeness that the upper class English are so good at – the kind that suggests it is beneath your dignity to argue with your opponent, and that to talk to them at all is a major concession on your part. Better yet, if you can throw in the impression that the politeness is an effort and you are near to going berserk, politeness can be more unsettling than screaming and breaking chairs, for the simple reason that you are leaving your anger to your opponent’s imagination, and what is imagined is frequently more unsettling than what is actually observed.

Politeness in these circumstances takes practice, and might even be against your natural inclination. But the reality is that politeness is far less passive than most people imagine. Treat it as a piece of meta-communication or body language, and few tactics are more successful.

Far from being a sign of weakness, politeness signals that you are the one in control, the pleasant and the logical one, the mature person where others are acting as children. The fact that few of your opponents will ever realize how you are outgaming them only makes your choice of tactics that much more satisfying.

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