Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Asking

A student emailed me yesterday asking for an extension. This doesn’t happen often – my course policy is that each student receives five "grace days" to use anytime during the year, and once those days are used up, late penalties apply. The policy exists precisely to prevent requests like the one I got yesterday, a few days after the essay’s due date, politely explaining that the student (a) wants to do a good job on the essay, and (b) has more important Health Science courses occupying his time. Despite the polite wording, I was irritated by the request. The reason for my irritation, I realized, was that I would have to say no.

Turning down requests is difficult – it violates the code of politeness that dictates that we do our best to fulfill whatever is asked of us. The Code is what motivated my husband, a year or two ago, to pull a toy out of its packaging at the request of a six-year-old visitor. The toy was a gag gift he’d received from his sister the previous Christmas, and when the little girl saw it, she asked if she could play with it. Hubby didn’t really want to remove it from the packaging, but he did so out of a misplaced sense of politeness – misplaced, I would argue, because children are not included in the Code. We are allowed to turn down the requests of children, even children who are not their own. Doing so will not humiliate them: they are accustomed to it and, moreover, they have not yet learned the rules that prohibit such requests and such refusals.

Before we learn the Code, we ask for the things we want. When we see other children eating Oreos in the schoolyard, we go up and ask for one. If the Oreo-eater is especially generous, she may even give us one – but if she wants to eat them all herself, she won’t be afraid of saying so. Gradually, we learn the rules: we notice that people avoid us on the playground if we always mooch their snacks, and so we learn not to ask. Later, we unlearn the skill of saying no; we lose our early experience in playground Oreo-hoarding – we become so unaccustomed to requests that we will give away our last cookie to anyone intrepid enough to ask.

The first step towards Code-obedience is the prohibition against asking; it is only in adulthood that we begin to observe the code of offering, and start offering not only the things we truly want to share, but also the things we think we ought to share, or are expected to share. We pull out our breath-freshening gum at the movie theatre and offer it around, even though there are only three pieces left. If everybody accepts one, we go without and spend the entire movie tasting the after-effects of that potent Caesar’s salad we ate at dinner.

Personally, I have never adopted this code, something I like to remind friends from time to time in order to avoid confusion. Last weekend, for instance, I accompanied a friend to a fund-raising banquet and was absurdly thrilled to win a gift basket of chocolates at the silent auction. As my friend and I drove home I invited her to come in and share my loot. To my disappointment, she declined, but then added, "I don’t want to take your prize – that’s for you to enjoy."

Aha. This was not a true refusal of my hospitality – it was a polite refusal. I pressed again; she declined again; finally, I burst out, "I think you’re forgetting that I never make polite offers. If I want to keep something for myself, I don’t offer it to you!" With her polite reservations swept away, she happily came in for a cup of tea and some raspberry truffles.

I have never really learned the ritual of offer-and-refuse. How many times do you keep offering before you accept a refusal? How do you know that you’re not actually forcing your company on your hapless, exhausted friend who wants nothing more than to go home and crawl into bed? How do you signal the difference between a polite ask-me-again refusal and a genuine one?

For the most part, I am content simply to skip such polite rituals. As a child, I was scornful of the arguments my mother and grandmother would have over who should wash the dishes. "Go sit down," my mother would urge, "you’ve been on your feet all day." My grandmother was not easily persuaded – she would squabble and protest and finally agree to let my mother pick up a tea towel and help dry. The whole performance struck me as utterly absurd.

As an adult, I still prefer directness: if someone offers me something I want, I accept it without the ritualistic test-if-they-really-mean-it refusal; if I make an offer of food or assistance, I hope it will be accepted in turn. To that extent, I’ve remained a child, mystified by the antics of the grown-ups around me. What I have lost, completely, is the childlike directness of asking and refusing. When someone asks me for something, I not only shrink from the task of refusing, but also feel as if a certain boundary has been violated – I rely on the Code to protect me from importunate requests. The request itself produces discomfort and irritation.

Courtesy greases the wheels of social interaction; it creates a buffer around our greed and selfishness, prevents us from pushing and shoving and shouting "Mine!" But it can be a crippling barrier, that buffer – it can prevent us from offering help; it can prevent us from knowing and being known. I was at the bookstore the other day, watching children playing at a Thomas train table, and while I was watching, a three-year-old boy snatched up a train – rather aggressively, I thought – and snarled, "It’s mine!"

"Good job, Dylan!" his mother said warmly – and then looked up to see my stunned expression. "He’s four years old," she explained, "it’s been a long time coming – he’s only just started saying ‘mine.’"

I sat there awhile longer, regretting my momentary lapse into judgment, wanting to talk more to this mother, who looked, somehow, like a kindred spirit. I wondered if it was the pronoun use that had prompted her words of praise, if her son might, like mine, exist somewhere on the borderlands of the autism spectrum. "Tell me about your son," I wanted to say. "How is he doing? What is he like?" And instead, I sat silently, shackled by politeness.

45 comments:

Terri B. said...

What a great topic! I too am a direct sort of gal. I think I often confuse people that don't know me. I know I confuse the internationals that I work with and teach. Many internationals (especially my Asian friends) are not accustomed to directness -- it is not polite. As I've come to understand other cultures I've had to adjust in certain situations.

This topic reminds me somewhat of the Monty Python episode where the character refuses to 'aggle (haggle)! He is direct and polite and expects directness in return; of course that is not what the haggler wants! In his world it is polite to 'aggle.

metro mama said...

I'm with you--I prefer the direct approach. I don't offer to do something, or give something, unless I truly want to. I hate playing guessing games.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

This was nice.

I am totally shackled by politeness. Slowly I'm beginning to learn that if I don't speak more directly, I am never going to get anything I want. My kids are teaching me that, in part because I have to be so direct with them.

Mouse said...

I am often polite to a fault, although I also mean it when I offer things up. One of the problems for me is that I tend to wonder if offers and invitations from people (of the "call me sometime" sort) are sincere--do they really want me around or is this just part of the script?

My desire to avoid confrontation has been sorely tested in having a child. While I don't want him to be overly aggressive, I alo don't want him to always take the passive role (as I tend to do) and so those Thomas table interactions have been a learning experience for both of us.

mad muthas said...

gosh! you're virtually british! isn't it a curse sometimes?

Christina said...

I'm also of the direct approach. If someone offers me something, I'll take it if I want it, without considering if there is some elaborate ritual behind it. If you didn't want to share, don't offer. Same goes with my offering - if I offer something, I really mean it.

But I also have a hard time saying no to requests. It's especially frustrating in my job as a student advisor, at perhaps the most Code-friendly university in the states. We let students get away with far too much, just because they asked. Drop a class in the last week of class, but don't want to pay for it due to some half-hearted excuse? Sure, but only because you asked!

I've actually said no a few times, and had it come back on me by my superivisors who stress that we must uphold a high level of customer service. That's fine and all, but how does this university have any credibility when we let students off the financial hook so easily?

MOM-NOS said...

I think sometimes parents of kids on the spectrum forget that the disability-related challenges often need to be addressed in addition to the regular old childhood challenges, and not in place of them.

I once took Bud to a group activity for kids with special needs, and we were sitting next to a mom and her son, whose disabilities were similar to Bud's. The woman leading the group was handing out name cards with stickers, and when she held up Bud's, he lunged for it and shouted "Give it to me! Give it to me!" The mom next to me and I spoke to Bud at the same time. I said "Bud, you need to try again and ask nicely." She said "Good job using your words!"

Karen said...

Thank you. You have actually just explained a major mystery in my life. I have a few friends with children I love but find myself often frustrated when they come to play by the constant requests to borrow, get out different toys, see the basement, the attic, and have a different snack. I get so annoyed then feel awfully guilty. Turns out they just haven't caught onto The Code so at least that explains my strange guilt. I have no idea what I will do about it, probably just wait it out, your theory that the playground takes care of this is a good one.

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

You would really, really hate Minnesota...We put the i in indirect. Well I don't, but boy does that get me into trouble sometimes.

Julie Pippert said...

One of the perks of getting older is shedding the absurdity level of politeness.

It depends, of course, on the situation and people involved.

Good friends you just KNOW.

Otherwise, I make the assumption that everyone plays by my rules: don't offer unless you mean it. If I'm not sure, I say "If you're sure..."

But otherwise, oh the joy of one go 'round of offers and acceptance, or refusals.

Yes, a perk of getting older. Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

Politely, of course.

Karianna said...

Yes. Many a time I have accepted an offer only to discover that I was unintentionally rude.

"Would you like this cookie?"
"Sure, thank you."
"You bitch! You took the last cookie!"

But what really gets me is the bit about special needs kids. I completely agree with mom-nos: "the disability-related challenges often need to be addressed in addition to the regular old childhood challenges, and not in place of them."

NotSoSage said...

I, too, am polite to a fault, and I often feel trapped in the game of, "No, I'll take the cheque." "Oh, no, please, we'll do it." I feel like there's no way to avoid that interaction and yet I also hate it.

Food and other, less important, things are easier sometimes than money, but the same rules apply. It's frustrating.

Her Bad Mother said...

Ooh,shackled by politeness is a theme today.

I have to say that I am impressed by WonderBaby's approach to the world of the material - if she wants something, she shrieks YA YA YA YA! And then, upon, receipt, TANK YOO!

But, but... there is no room for denial of her requests. The thank you is superfluous, almost, because she brooks no denial of her requests. Or, rather, denial is greeted with robust, if somewhat affected, distress. She seems to regard it, in pure Hegelian fashion, as a denial of her very being, her individual consciousness. If she requests it, you must give it, for isn't that how the world works?

University students have not progressed much beyond toddlerhood, it seems.

marian said...

I, too, often end up running roughshod over the highly developed rituals that some live by. Sometimes I'm just oblivious. Sometimes I know thata game is being played, but I feel hopeless about ever getting the rules exactly right anyway. And often enough I know very well what volley is occuring, but choose to just communicate honestly and let things fall where they may. Which is why I could never survive as a permanant resident of the Deep South here in the U.S. (You invited me with insistance... but I'm in the wrong for accepting?! I don't get it!)

Mad Hatter said...

Ya, as I said earlier, I really like your random theories posts. Really.

Like Sage and Mouse, I am polite to a fault. I will, in fact, give the shirt off my back and I am mortified if a situation forces me to not be polite (e.g. my husband getting home late from work thus making us late for a social engagement--that kind of thing). I have also noticed that I am instilling this absurd degree of politeness in my daughter. When we are at the Thomas table, I'm all "blah, blah, share. Blah, blah play nice." Sometimes that other me hears what I am saying and tries to bitch-slap the speaking me into oblivion for how I am gender-coding my kid. But it was how I was raised and I really don't know how to be otherwise.

I am like you in that I haven't learned the ritual of offer and refuse. I was at a mid-afternoon baby shower on the weekend having skipped my lunch and escaped a tantrum to get there. Someone said, "should we eat first or open gifts first?" A chorus replied, "open gifts!!" The new mom said "we could eat while I open gifts". Boom! I was at the snack table like that and I no doubt raised a few eyebrows as I left the room. They were just begining the polite barter that I guess is de rigeur in these situations. Sheesh.

Mimi said...

Ahhhhhh. Interesting. Academics tend to not be good at these sorts of things: were we not all the oddball geeks all through school, kinda out of the Oreo loop entirely? If you're off in the corner reading a book, you're not really practicing these skills, right?

For myself, strange to say, but I am much more at ease / gracious / successful in situations where I am not with peers: where I am in a defined relationship of subordination, in a hierarchy, where there are clear rules and one person clearly holds the power, I am happy as a clam. I love teaching for this reason, and I love being a student, or a client, or what have you. Just let me know who's in charge, and that's the lead I'll follow. But with peers? How do you figure out what to do?

kgirl said...

I'm direct, and I mean what I say, but I am still aghast at some of the things that are asked of me. Employing Bee's caregiver is a good example - I appreciate the directness in her asking me for what she wants, but lord! I sometimes wonder how she has the cahoonas to ask for some of those things. However, learning how to handle these requests diplomatically, fairly and with a certain amount of grace has helped me grow as a person.

Jenifer G. said...

Ditto, polite to a fault in most cases. I have noticed with hubby's family the politeness, and offering and "dance" of it all is nearly an art. I am amused by this at times, but it really is a part of the culture.

You would never take the last of anything if their are guests over and I find myself taking the "ugly" slice of cake or whatever when they have company over. Even I follow the rules!

I worry I am passing this along to the girls, but as Mad said I really don't know any other way to be. I think I have been making baby steps and learning right along with them.

Something so interesting to me was another comment about other children visiting your home and wanting to see toys, rooms, snacks, movies, etc. that are not out. We have some friends with children like that and to be honest I never understood it as neither of my girls ever do this. This child will ask to see my room, the basement, what is in the fridge, or for a movie to be played, perhaps this child has not learned the Code. Fascinating as the sibling does not do it....I too found it so annoying and difficult to spend the entire visit catering to this one child, the parents never seemed to notice or mind either.

While I hate guessing games I am guilty as charged.

PeanutButtersMum said...

"Shackled to politeness." Yep. That's me. Hmm...

It's a shame if our need to be polite overshadows our genuine interest in others though, isn't it? What if that woman's son WAS like yours? What if you could have found a kindred spirit with whom to share stories and tears and laughter? Extreme, maybe, but it could happen...

Don't take this as accusatory, or as a "You SHOULD have spoken more to that woman." I'm only thinking aloud and wondering about similar occasions in my own life.

Thanks for making me think!

Melanie said...

Oh - I want to give you an AMEN! I have these two friends who are so hard to be around now that we are all adults (or pretending to be). Let's argue first about who will drive. "No, please let me drive, it's my turn." "Oh, no, no...it's really my turn." Then on to where we should eat. Then who will pay. Where to go for drinks. Who will drive home. You can see where this is going. I end up seeming brash and rude about an hour into the evening. "OH FOR LORD'S SAKE! I will do it!!!!" (Whatever we are politely arguing over at that point) I really try to avoid going out with them together. It's yucky. I can get very direct too when needed.

I really like how you put this post. What a great topic to bring to the table. I hope you didn't feel a smidge of guilt for that student. He should have read the syllabus!

bubandpie said...

PBM - That's the thing - I was kicking myself all the way home. It wasn't just the possibility that our sons might share something in common: it was something about her face that drew me, but once I let the opportunity slip by, I can't get it back.

Mad - Hehe. I was remembering your comment as I planned this post out - this one was for you. (And I am ALWAYS first at the snack table.)

Blog Antagonist said...

What an interesting topic! I'm a typically direct and no frills Northerner. I find that here in the South, there is whole dance of politeness that has to be done and there are social cues and rules and protocol that I don't always recognize and rarely understand. It's all very....weird...for me.

In short, Southerners never say what they mean, or mean what they say. You have to be really good at reading between the lines if you weren't born and raised understanding how to penetrate this veneer of gentility and get down to the nitty gritty.

It's exhausting for someone like me and sometimes gets me in trouble.

On the other hand, I always did very well with Southern men (obviously) because they were so appreciative of the fact that I didn't play games, simper, or pretend to be anyone other than who I really am.

The South takes politeness and protocol to a whole new level. It would boggle your mind.

lildb said...

well, ya got me again, G. I'm moved. incredibly so.

flutter said...

I have manners, southern breeding, but no one who knows me can say that I don't say precisely what I mean. I too, abhor the social ridiculousness surrounding political correctness, or being polite.
Being cordial and respectful is all we need, as people....the rest falls into place. Great topic.

Author Mom DogNut said...

I believe the more one knows oneself thoroughly, the less one is ruled by "Politeness." The more one is ruled by a sense of what is rather than what appears to be the socially correct behavioral training.

I think, like your student, there are times when you ask even though rules or guidelines suggest you do otherwise. (Don't know this student's circumstances well enough to know if he's just inclined to put things off, or if there was a real need.) Because sometimes life just isn't need and tidy no matter how hard the rules would like it to be otherwise...

Author Mom DogNut said...

I believe the more one knows oneself thoroughly, the less one is inclined to be ruled by "Politeness" and more inclined to be ruled by a sense of what is rather than what appears to be the socially correct behavioral training.

I think there are times when you ask, even though rules or guidelines suggest you do otherwise. Because sometimes life just isn't neat and tidy no matter how hard the rules would like it to be otherwise...

Author Mom DogNut said...

Love it when the comment box has a sense of humor and double posts. Was thinking of doing a post on how one edits a piece of writing. Now I don't need to, because I've done it here! :)

meredith said...

I really wish people could be more direct, in a polite way, that would make social interaction much easier.
Keep going back to the book store, maybe you'll come across that mom and her son again.

Chantal said...

When I was 10 I was visiting a friend. Her mother offered me some food I wanted (25 years later I can't ever remember what it was). I was shy and said no, even though I did want it. Instead of doing the normal "Are you sure you don't want it?" game, she said "Ok" and walked off. Later her daughter told her I did want it but at that point there was none left. Her mother came to me and tought me a lesson that has stayed with me to this day "Always say what you mean". I practice this and I am trying to teach it to my children, although I do see a lot of my young self in my older son. It is a hard lesson in a culture that seems to encourage the polite denial-denial-accept way of doing things.

Gwen said...

I think my levels of politeness and ability to say No or Yes vary by situation. Like Mimi said, when I was teaching, it wasn't very hard for me to say No. Because I was the one in charge, and I believed in my own standards and when other teachers, counselors or the admin would challenge me, I would push back when I thought it was right (of course, my motto was, "What's the worst they can do? Fire me? I'll just get a job at another crappy, under-served Chicago Public School! So there! Yeah, it's so good I was in charge being all adult and everything).

As far as the rest of life: it depends on the situation. With people I know well, I know which game is being played and adjust my behavior accordingly. My mother, for example, is the most indirect person in the world, which makes me nuts, so I pretend I think she's saying what she means, just to punish her for being so slippery (see? I told you I was a grown up!)

With acquaintances or strangers, I try to be polite, because really, for me, the act of being kind makes up for anything I may be losing by letting someone have the last cookie or piece of chocolate or cool train on the train table.

Is being polite really gender-oriented, like Mad said? I've never thought of it that way .....

nomotherearth said...

So many people raised such good points here.

I feel very bound by politeness and rules. However, if the thing I want (ie. the snack table) is offered, I'm the first one to say "ok, let's do that!". I just want it to be somebody else's suggestion so that I don't have to be the one to be "rude".

I am gravitating more to the direct route, though. I prefer it in others and am adopting it more and more as I lose my youthful shyness. I'm with Karen, though, in that I am shocked by what some people feel they have the right to ask for. I'm not entirely comfortable with this growing trend of entitlement. It can be a very positive thing overall, but also a very negative in daily practice.

theflyingmum said...

Perhaps the discomfort and irritation generated by a request for an extension has to do with the possible confrontation it might generate. If you qualify your 5 day grace period rule at the get-go with the additional statement that you do not under any circumstance grant extensions, then you'd be able to back up your refusal without any argument. It sounds like your policy is fairly cut and dried, and if this young man already used up his grace days, then he probably already knows that your answer will be "No" and he will be subject to whatever the penalties are for handing in his assignment late, no matter ho politely he might ask. I would have never expected my proffessors to be polite with a request for more time, the teachers have made the rules, and I am expected to play by them just like everybody else in the class. YOU are in charge, you make the rules to which your students are expected to adhere. Tell them why you don't offer extensions. Tell them that everybody in the class has to have the same opportunity and no unfair advantages. And excuse me, "...has more important Health Sciences courses occupying his time.." ?! If you aren't going to see this course as important to you education (whether it's a GUR - General University Requirement - or elective) then maybe you shouldn't have enrolled in it.
As for "The Code" - which for me is "The Dating Code", Worst Date Ever, Lunch and a Movie:
I offer to pick up the tab at lunch (polite offer) he says yes, AND DOESN'T EVEN OFFER TO LEAVE THE TIP! I want to go see "Jurassic Park," he takes me to "The Lion King." He's a little short on cash, so I buy my own ticket and my own candy. Needless to say, I never went out with him again.

theflyingmum said...

...you know I meant professors, right?

Mad Hatter said...

Gwen: for me, definitely and I think for a lot of others as well. I was raised with a sense of what nice girls do. The emphasis was always on the girl part of the equation.

bubandpie said...

Flying Mum - The funny thing is, I'm pretty sure the student did not resent my refusal of his request - he probably knew it was a long-shot, and felt that there was "no harm in asking." My irritation was uncalled-for, which made me wonder where it was coming from. Usually I'm pretty good at turning down student requests in the interests of fairness (I don't want to give all the grease to the squeaky wheels), but I seem to have slacked off a little lately - I've become willing to allow all manner of make-up tests for almost any reason - maybe the stress of saying no has started outweighing my concern for fairness.

bren j. said...

So did you end up granting the extension?
I always hated having to ask for them. I felt so humiliated. It never did me any good though - I just ended up procrastinating for an extra three days.

bubandpie said...

Bren - No no no - no extension. In another instance, though, I allowed a student to postpone a quiz for a reason that doesn't really fall under my normal guidelines. I'm getting soft in my old age. ;)

theflyingmum said...

After I left that comment I kept thinking, thinking, and I think maybe I missed the mark on that one, because later on in your post you addressed the issue of compassion and empathy so clearly and beautifully with the scene at the "Thomas table."
Well then, what bothers you the most about having to say no? Is it feeling like you're being "forced" (because they clearly know the rules) or is it that "nice girl" thing addressed here in the comments?
I have a problem asking for help. Jees, even asking my mom and dad to watch Ben for an evening can cause the well of anxiety to gush forth. But that has to do with learned behavior, and it doesn't sound like you took after your mom and grandma.
PS, I still stand by my worst date comment, though.

Gwen said...

I've been thinking about whether men are "less polite" all day, b/c of Mad's comment. I haven't decided yet. I know for me, I was taught to be polite so that I would be a good Christian (Jesus and Others and You, what a wonderful way to spell JOY!), not a good girl.

Suz said...

I would (and have) felt anger at this type of request. Not because I would have to say "no" but because the student made the request in the first place, after the rules were made abundantly clear. I feel that sometimes, with my students, there's a sense of entitlement and the perception that rules were made for other people. It's this perception and the daring to ask at all that makes me angry.

Catherine said...

I so agree with you - I have a hard time with those rituals myself, and feel that I accept too readily because when I offer, I mean it.

And, I've given a lot of thought about how to keep my son from the 'mine!' syndrom. I know it can be done - toddlers in many other countries don't go through that.

My dad used to say something to effect of "the best people to be friends with are those who are honest about their own selfishness" - meaning, its nice when you can trust that when they say "Please have some" or "no thank you" they're being up front about it. :)

Lawyer Mama said...

Gosh, I prefer the direct approach too but I still sometimes have trouble asking for what I want. And then when I realy want something and I do ask and someone says no, I wish I could cry like my 2 year old! Although, I swear I wouldn't cry over an Oreo denial. LOL

ewe are here said...

Gosh I missed a lot last week...

another greatpost, isay to you directly!

Indirectness drives me nuts.

edj said...

I love the direct approach. Unfortunately I've ended up in a part of the world where that doesn't work. Sigh. We rude North Americans!
Here's a funny story for you that illustrates that. Here, you never ask someone if they would like something to eat/drink. It's rude. You just bring something, and then they have to eat/drink it. (And yes, that means I have drunk Coke mixed with long-life milk before)
Once an American and a Mauritanian were walking through the city on a really hot day. The American spied a boutique, and asked the Maure if he'd like a cold drink. Of course he said no. "Sure?" said the American. Again, the M refused. So the Amer bought one for himself and drank it down right in front of the other guy, whose tongue was hanging out in thirst!
Well I find it funny anyway. But if you don't laugh at these cultural faux pas, you despair. People here walk all around the subject, and you're supposed to get it. It can be rather stressful for me, as I'm always wondering what it is I'm supposed to be getting. Oblivious, that's me.

edj said...

Oh one more thing, re: Mad's comment. I think the solution is that ALL children should be taught politeness, not just girls. Why was it ever a gender thing? I (attempt to) teach all my children to share, to think of others, etc. I worry that in our attempt to wean ourselves of the "nice girl" syndrome, we are ending up with rude children of both sexes, instead of the other way round. (Not directed at Mad, whose daughter sounds delightful as long as you are not a certain doll!)