Tuesday, November 3, 2009


I think good manners are very important. But I think my notion of what is polite separates me from most of the U.S. population.

For example, there is the class of people who think it is the height of rudeness to touch someone else's stuff without asking, unless that someone is a close friend with whom you have an agreement that doing so is okay.

Then there is the class of people who think that someone who doesn't want others to touch their things without asking is a selfish bitch or bastard.

I fall into the former category, but when I am at work, I feel myself to be in the distinct minority.

One of my co-workers is a particularly egregious toucher. Today he was in my office when my microwave popcorn popper caught his eye. But he couldn't simply ask me about it. No. He had to reach up to the shelf where I keep it, take it down, and gesture with it in his hand as he asked me about it. (Did I mention that this thing is made of glass?)

We have had this discussion before, so I cut to the chase. "I don't remember you asking me if you could touch that," I said. (In my camp, sarcasm isn't as rude as touching other people's things, but I know not everyone agrees with me.)

"No, I didn't," he said, and continued to manhandle it.

Back when I worked with a bunch of hippie types, the way we were supposed to bring up how we wanted to be treated was by saying, "I feel ___ when ____ happens. It reminds me of ____. In the future, I would feel more comfortable if we handled the situation this way: ________."

Maybe I should try it with this co-worker, but I'm not sure it would be any more effective than sarcasm. "I feel violated when people touch my things without asking. It reminds me of all the selfish prigs who have touched my things without asking - for example, that guy who ruined my cycling gloves by trying them on even though his hands are twice as big as mine, or the boss who picked up my pen while holding a used Kleenex in the same hand. But more important than reminding me of anything, such behavior is inimical to my understanding of how people ought to interact with one another. Individuals ought to have some degree of autonomy, and they ought to be free to decide whom to allow into their personal realm. When you touch what belongs to someone else, you are entering the personal realm. In the future, I would feel more comfortable if we handled the situation this way: please ask if you want to touch my things, and respect 'no' for an answer. I work with you; I am not obligated to be your buddy. And the more you impose buddiness on our relationship, the more I will think you are rude and the less likely I am to become your friend."

I guess that sounds meaner than what I actually said, since in our culture people tend to get offended if you state the obvious fact that you are not their friend. It's okay to know it, just not to say it.

Just like it's okay to know that there's something discordant about people who believe they're destined for heaven still fighting like hell to defeat a terminal illness, but it's not considered polite to point this out to them.

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