January 08, 2006

Observe the forms

There are certain forms, certain of what used to be commonly accepted ways to initiate interaction and social discourse. These are, probably, thought of as old fashioned by some and as taboos to be transgressed by iconoclasts and other self-consciously hip trend setters, both young (who ought to be rebelling against something) and old (who really ought to know better, but so be it). But they are neither. These forms, this kind of politeness, is neither old fashioned nor unnecessary. They include words like: please; thank you; excuse me; pardon me; may I trouble you; or, do you mind. These words provide a sort of social lubrication so that the parts in the great social machine (meaning, you and me) do not rub up against each other and snag or create friction which leads to heat. They allow our wheels to move more smoothly when we have to mesh together, even if only for a brief moment. I insist on them, both for myself and my children. My wife and I, if you can believe it, actually say please and thank you to each other, both as a matter of habit and course and because our kids might as well see manners in action -- do as I say and as I do.

So, background over.

This morning, as I awaited the 7:34 train to come and whisk me away to the bib bad city and to my desk where multiple tasks were provided by my kind and munificent employers to both delight and entertain me, I gazed out over the quiet, and mostly empty, parking lot. It was peaceful and I was sort of pleasantly lost in thought as my mind kind of drifted this way and that, sort of just bobbing along with the flow of my relaxed little stream of consciousness. The snow was falling, rapidly but not heavily, kind of drifting down etherally and lightly but quickly. It was kind of nice.

Then, an interruption.

"Do you know when the train comes", I was asked.

No, excuse me or pardon me or sorry for interrupting but . . . I dislike that quite a bit, as if you didn't know by now. If it were me asking, I would make some sort of prefatory apology first because I certainly don't think that just because you are standing there, just because you exist, you owe me any information or indeed any form of social discourse at all beyond the social implied contract that you will leave me alone and not trouble me and, hopefully, not impinge on the quiet exercise of my own liberties. That's certainly what you can expect, I believe. So, I acknowledge that and then ask for assistance or information or whatever.

Now, having examined what was missing from her question, let's look at what was there and reflect, if you are still reading, on why it was a bad question on at least a couple of levels.

First, I could have simply answered it, yes. Yes, I know when the next train is coming. Although, actually, even though the question is structured to permit such an answer, I would have to have a claim to some kind of omniscience that I do not really possess to know when the train is coming. So, I suppose I could have simply answered it, no, I do not know when the train is coming.

How could I know when the train is coming? I cannot see it, I have no GPS relationship with it. No, the most I could know is when the train is supposed to arrive at my station, when it is scheduled to arrive. That I could know and that I could tell her.

But you see, all she asked is whether I knew, not for the information I actually had to convey, although I believe she really meant to know the information and was not really inquiring whether I was generally informed and possessed of the information. Although, I suppose she could have been. Maybe she was seized of a compulsion to generally inquire of her fellow citizens to gauge their level of information concerning train arrivals and departures. Perhaps an over or under medication issue and not simply the evidence of a sloppy thinking process.

All that said, I doubt she walked away from our encounter thinking much more of me than I of her. I answered her thusly:

"Do I know when the train is coming? No. However, it is scheduled to arrive here at 7:34."

She walked away, her braided pig tails, so incongruous in a woman over ten, bobbing in her wake, seemingly so content with the information I provided that she, in the bliss of her contentment, neglected to thank me.

And so the wheels of social interaction grind together and stop. A little lubrication probably would have helped. I think you know what I mean. And since you do, let me not neglect to thank you for actually reading to the end of this rant.

Posted by Random Penseur at January 8, 2006 09:19 AM | TrackBack

Pardon me, might you have any Grey Poupon?

"Social lubrication" Love it!

Enjoy your Sunday RP!

Posted by: Wicked H at January 8, 2006 09:52 AM

Aside from her rudely neglecting to say "excuse me", "please" or "thank you", let's look at her question: "Do you know when the train is coming?".

In order for her to ask you for the information (rather than merely if you know the information), she would have had to say, "Pardon me, I don't mean to bother you, but I would very much appreciate it if you would tell me what time the train is scheduled to arrive."

The thing is that this is not a question. It has the character of a demand that you share that information which, of course, she has no right to do.

The most polite way to do it is to ask a question, but that would mean asking "What time is the train supposed to get here?" The problem there is that she has no idea if you know what time the train is scheduled to arrive; you may be just as in the dark about it as she is. So, she asks the most natural-feeling question, "Do you know what time the train is coming?", assuming that you understand that she is asking for the time, not simply whether or not you know the time. It's just one of those things where the meaning is understood to one thing even though the imperfect language has us saying another. Kinda like when you ask "Would you pass the salt, please?" and someone passes you the salt rather than replying "I would if you wanted me to" or something.

There are many such instances. Like when my boss asks me "Do you wanna get this 3-color, 2-sided job done first?" and I respond "'Do I want to?' Is that your question?" It's funny.

Posted by: Tuning Spork at January 8, 2006 02:54 PM

Chances are if she had started off politely you never would have noticed the glare in the question. She started off by interupting your train of thought, instantly putting you in an uncomfortable position and forcing you to evaluate the question itself. With the slow start of an apology for interrupting you, you have a chance to hit the internal reset button and get back to the real world and the circumstanced immediately around you BEFORE the query arrives. In such a case you are reacting to the obvious intent of the questioner.

In short, when surprised with something you think literally. When you are allowed to take it you can think figuratively.

Apologizing for interrupting somebody isn't just polite. It's highly self-serving as it gives you much better odds of being comprehended.

Posted by: Jim at January 8, 2006 07:13 PM

Then there's the always helpful Q: "Pardon me, but Do you know where this road goes?" A: "Doesn't go anywhere. Stays right there."

Posted by: Tuning Spork at January 8, 2006 07:52 PM

You know that Jim isn't just a pretty face.

Posted by: Margi at January 9, 2006 12:31 AM

There's a difference between being polite - which I'll admit is important - and being pompous, which is a vice. You seem to confuse the two.

Posted by: e d at January 9, 2006 08:32 AM

Well, Margi, seeing as how you've met Jim in the flesh, you'd probably be in the best position to evaluate!

Jim and Tuning Spork, you both make some excellent points. Thank you.

e d -- whoever you are, with your non-existent email and website, please don't assume that because I don't answer you that means I agree. I tend not to feed the trolls. Just good policy.

Posted by: RP at January 9, 2006 08:48 AM

Speaking of rude. . .

Posted by: Margi at January 9, 2006 12:29 PM

I live in the South Eastern US, a region that is supposedly known for an excess of politeness, but even here I've noticed a trend towards the absence of politeness. Many people believe themselves to be far to busy to bother with social lubrication (great phrase btw). (I must admit that I have this failing myself from time to time, but I try to keep it to a minimum.) How long can it possibly take to say 'please', 'thank you', or 'excuse me'?

'Excuse me' is the one I forget most. Partially because it's very often ignored. Mainly when I'm trying to navigate a walking area where people have decided that walking is far to much trouble, and they'd rather just stop and stand in the way. In that instance 'excuse me' rather quickly becomes 'get out of my way'. Not something I'm especially proud of, but it seems necessary from time to time.

Politeness is dying. Not because people are becoming more and more impolite, but because people are begining to ignore politeness more and more often. At least, that's my experience.

Posted by: Primal at January 9, 2006 06:04 PM
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