Civility has its limits

About six months ago, journalist Liz Clancy Lerner asked me, “Can someone ever be too nice?” My short answer was yes, followed by a number of examples that were obvious, like in cases of violence, rape, and other extreme scenarios.

But recently I thought again about how complex civility can really be. There isn’t a fine line that designates when it is appropriate to be unkind and when it is necessary to play nice.

I typically err on the side of being nice or friendly. I do this to “save face.” That’s how I was raised. What will people think? How will it look if…? That was always the question and primary concern in small town Iowa.

As I grew older I began to embrace the side of me that was more forthright and more assertive – which often times made some family members uncomfortable. But it has been an asset to me many times in recent years, and I’m happy now to own it as part of my persona.

Even still, I have trouble putting my new “assertive Jen” mode to meaningful use. It’s great when I’m joking around, and it comes out full force when I am pushed too far. But what about those middle-gray times when it’s not black and white? I still play nice and save face. And I’m left wondering, “Did I react the right way?”

I work near a spot in town where an art event was going on Friday night. Needing to use the restroom, I knew I could just pop into my work building and use the facilities there. As I walked into the lobby, I saw some familiar faces – cleaning people and the security guard “George.” He is an older man, probably in his late sixties. Unlike a few of his security guard predecessors, George has been professional with me when we’ve interacted. Surprised to see me after work hours, he asked what I was up to, told me I looked nice, and then gave me the key to the ladies room. After doing my business, I returned to George’s desk and made a little light chitchat. I didn’t really care to visit much with him, but thought it was the nice thing to do.

George told me how pretty I looked again. I thanked him – I never mind a good complement. Then he said to me, “You should come back here and sit on my lap.” I couldn’t believe my ears. Could this sweet old man really be making a pass at me? I asked him to repeat himself to ensure I had heard him correctly. “I said, ‘You look so good. Why don’t you come back here and sit on my lap?'” he replied, with a chuckle.

Having been one of many women in that building who had received inappropriate looks and advances from previous security guards, I was well-practiced at my response. “George, you should not talk to me that way. I am a married woman and that is inappropriate. Don’t you realize you can lose your job? Other guards have been fired for this sort of thing.”

George replied, “No, no I doubt that. See, a man can say anything he wants to a woman. As long as he isn’t touching or raping her or holding her arms against a wall he isn’t doing anything wrong.”

“ARE YOU F*@&!#$ KIDDING ME?!” I thought. Did this man seriously just say that?! Yes. And he meant it. He seemed shocked that I thought making those sort of advances was inappropriate in the workplace. I replied, “Well, it’s not okay with me. Don’t talk to me that way again.”

So far so good. Assertive. Civil. Firm. To the point.

Then I did something I don’t understand, and it happens all the time. I reverted to a friendly mode, keeping the mood light but serious, and as I walked away smiling I said, “It’s not cool George. Not cool.” I shook my finger at him. “I’d like to see you try to say that with my husband around. He might not be so nice!” George laughed and I left the lobby.

When I arrived back to my husband I was furious. Furious with George, but angry with myself as well. Why hadn’t my anger been so intense when I reacted to the guard? Why did I feel the need to make nice?

It's hard to find relevant images sometimes. I picked this one because I liked it! Source: http://mystylishbump.blogspot.com/2011/04/think-happy-thoughts.html

I do this all the time – try to smooth things over after a confrontation. Even when I know I am standing on firm ground and am in the right, I still try to gloss over the situation with humor or smiles.

Of course, I was proud of myself for asserting that it was wrong to say those things to me. In the past even that response would be difficult to summon. Let me give you a comparison: 7 years ago my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. One of his family members (not his kids or grand-kids thank goodness) said it was his own fault for getting cancer because he didn’t listen to his doctors. I was highly offended and angry. That is not the sort of thing to say when someone has cancer metastasized to their bones.

But what did I do? I said, “Well, I don’t know about that. I’m sure he listened to his doctors.” Then I talked amiably for a few minutes, gave her a hug saying how lovely it was to see her, and I left (angry on the inside, smiling on the outside). Why? First, I didn’t want to start a family feud. Second? Well, that is what I thought was proper behavior. In 2004. But it’s not “proper” to roll over when someone bad mouths a person you love. And it’s not okay to mislead someone into thinking something is not as serious as you really feel it is by smiling or joking around after the fact.

In the end I am realizing there are times when being nice is completely inappropriate.

George needed to know that sort of behavior was unprofessional. My relative should have been told her statements were offensive. It was my responsibility to be assertive and call them out on their behavior with confidence and gravity rather than alleviate their guilt and discomfort with humor and lighthearted banter. However I may have been socialized as a child, it is my duty to address my fear of conflict, deference to others, and lack of confidence when asserting my perspectives. And maybe next time, I will be able to leave my offender with a bitter taste of honesty rather than the sweet flavor of pseudo-civility.

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2 thoughts on “Civility has its limits

  1. In case #1 with the guard, it sounds like he’s someone you had liked. You let him know you didn’t like his flirting, but implied that you didn’t dislike him for it as long as he behaved himself. If you did dislike him because of this, of if he repeats his improper behavior, then yeah, let him have it, full force, without the nice. It might have been better not to have added the “if my husband were here” part, but the “not cool” was a friendly way of emphasizing your point.

    In the second case, again, how much you like the person? If you were with others, your niceness was appropriate. If it was just the two of you, you might have been more forceful about letting her know you were offended, but for the sake of not creating a family feud, you still needed to be nice about it. People like that in my family just get something like you said, often with the rest of us rolling our eyes, ’cause some people never change or learn.

    Balancing nice and forceful can be difficult, more so with people you like and/or have to spend a lot of time with (family, coworkers). I’m more forceful than I was 30 years ago. Clarity is important. One thing on my side is that I can convey a lot with my expression and apparently people always know when I disapprove, even if I say nothing. It helps back up words pleasantly said. Usually it was customers with off color jokes and blatant things like your security guard. I didn’t laugh at the jokes and always said (probably coldly) that I was happily married, to the others. No one hated me and no one tried either again. Customers were still friendly to me. My coworker told me she couldn’t understand why they always badgered her (in a friendly, if inappropriate, way) and I finally had to tell her to stop laughing and flirting back. Kind of obvious to me, but she was “being nice.” Well, I was nice, too, but better respected.

    • Thank you Faith for such a thoughtful reply! Yes, in the second case I was there with two other people, so I had to be civil. It would’ve created problems for other people, who didn’t need that sort of additional drama at that time.

      It surprised me too that I used the whole “I”m married” thing, as if it wouldn’t be inappropriate if I were single. The environment made his words inappropriate no matter what my marital status was. Since I still have to see him every day, I have prepared myself to be much more assertive and blunt if need be, but I am hoping the issue will not present itself again.

      Thanks for your perspective Faith! 🙂

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