When Polite Isn’t So Polite

Moving Beyond Midwestern Gentilleuse Culture and on to Being Direct in Conversation

I am from the Midwest where the art of conversation, and by connection relationship, is to say what you don’t mean and mean what you don’t say. While some folks may practice this indirectness in an effort to be polite I have found in my own relationships that when I do this, or when others do it, it is more of a hindrance to a healthy relationship than a help. Here is what I mean. I may say to my husband, “Sweetheart, you don’t have to leave that door open.” What I mean, however, is I would prefer you not leave the door open if you don’t need it to be.

Why don’t I just say that? Am I being polite or indirect?

Other times I am direct to no avail. “What do you mean by what you just said?” I say to my husband. Oh no, he thinks to himself. I must have been offensive or I sound like a babbling fool. My husband doesn’t say these words but I see them written all over his face as he pauses to respond to my inquiry. Then he starts explaining himself, in narrative form.

Is that what I asked him for? 

When he spoke he spoke out of his subjective preference. We all do this when we are being forthright. In order to understand what he means I need for him to define his terms for me so I ask him to define what he meant. It seems easy enough to me. Nevertheless chaos unfolds. Confused by his response, I repeat my question. He becomes silent.

What just happened to our conversation and the free flowing river of insights and feelings?

A common foe returns to plague our light conversation with fear and insecurity: the classic Midwestern assumption. The assumption goes that folks say what they don’t mean and mean what they don’t say. My husband falling prey to this foe without even being aware of it immediately starts to construct the hidden meaning behind what I asked him. In doing so, he forgets one thing: I may have meant what I actually said (gasp!).

When talking to someone who is direct how can you figure out what they really mean?

I have some advice. Try identifying the main idea in only what they verbalized to you and then respond strictly to that. Period. It may look easy enough but a main idea is not always easy to spot. For a nonverbal processor like myself such a feat may prove nearly impossible to do without help. I may need to stop and write their statement down in order to see its main idea. More commonly, I may need the person to repeat the statement.

A direct person who wants a healthy relationship shouldn’t mind making room for this.

Giving someone the time or help they need to process what the speaker actually said leads to better understanding of what the person meant to say, NOT what the person did not mean to say but that someone else may interpret them as having meant. Another conversation bomb to the common Midwestern culture of politeness is the direct request. The direct request is hardly ever used in polite Midwestern culture. For this reason I think: it really puts the pressure on the hearer of the request to try to configure what the person making the request meant but didn’t say and then somehow make a change that was not directly asked for.

Sadly, all to often my attempts to build relationship by making direct requests make the conversation, the relationship, or both fall off a cliff. It’s an absolute stumper for anyone who comes from a culture where people don’t say what they want but in the name of “politeness” subtly hint at it.

Could this request be what it looks like on its face? That is could it be an actual request?

Certainly not. It must be an attempt to blow off steam or a roundabout way of making a personal critique of the person to whom the request is said. It is definitely not what it looks like. Or is it? Perhaps the person means what they say and nothing more. If that person is me, then it is HIGHLY likely they do.

If I say to someone that it hurts my feelings for them to broach a certain topic with me, then I mean it hurts my feelings for them to broach a certain topic with me. Nothing more. Nothing less. Do I find them to be an offensive or mean person or some other criticism to which they should immediately start defending themselves to me?

Who knows. I didn’t say anything about that. It would be presumptuous to assume it. What did I say? I said a way I would like to be treated. I said a subjective preference that I have, which is specific to my person and my feelings that make me, well me. If someone cares about me or respects me being myself they will honor my request. If they don’t care about me they won’t. Simple.

Now whenever I make a request such as this one the person hearing it may begin to think that by me saying something I want-or something about myself- I am really saying something I think about them or their behavior. I am guilty of this way of thinking more than I would like to admit! I am ashamed of this because this way of thinking is prideful and self centered. It puts me at the center of the universe- at the center of how everyone else feels. It assumes that people don’t make requests of me because they have personal preferences but rather they are critiquing me or cutting me down. It assumes that people make requests of me because of me. In this way of thinking everything revolves around me.

But does it in reality?

Perhaps the person has had experiences with something that has driven them to this request. Perhaps they would even be willing to share those experiences with me if I respond to their request with kindness. This is an opportunity for the relationship to grow. If I think only of myself when I hear someone else make a request of me I will miss out on the other person. I will miss out on learning more about them when I think only of expressing myself.

One of the most destructive ways to respond to a direct request is not to ignore it but rather to immediately make a request of your own. In particular, an especially unhealthy way to respond to a direct request is to make a direct request of your own that gets you off the hook for the direct request the person just made of you. For instance, let’s say a person asks me to not ask them about a subject they consider private. In response I say please don’t take any offense in anything I may say to you. Is it ever appropriate in a healthy relationship to ask someone to change how they feel? I think not. If their feelings represent their subjective preferences in asking them to change how they feel have I not asked them to change their very selves, for me, a mere mortal?

If I request someone not take offense at things I say on the heels of that same person requesting of me that I change a behavior of mine that hurts them, am I not trying to avoid doing the very thing they asked of me, which is to change something I do? In responding this way I boldly indicate I will not do their request. Even if it hurts their feelings. I am saying that what I want is supreme. Though in reality I want something I cannot reasonably ask for. That is, I want them to change how they feel when I talk.

The other person wants something reasonable from me. That is they want me to change my behavior. A change in my behavior does not ask that much of me. If I refuse to give it, such refusal to give it and such a counter request to get out of it is manipulative and controlling. If I am worried by the person’s request that I may have offended them, I should respectfully assure the person I will do my best to comply with their request. Then I may ask the person directly if I have caused offense and state to them my concerns directly. If someone asks me not to do a behavior that hurts them and I immediately respond by explaining why I do it or telling the person this is just how my family does things how have I encouraged the broken-hearted who just shared their hurt with me?

Job 16 2 ‘I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. 

When I act this way I do not care about the other person’s feelings. Rather I care about being right. I am willing to defend that I am right regardless of the cost to the other person’s feelings. While God has given such free will to us to sin I ought to be weary of treating others like this and the consequences that follow sin. I may deteriorate healthy relationships.

By the end of life I may find my only true companion to be the pride I so valiantly defend at the cost of my relationships. Unless of course I can rely on an unhealthy family culture that says “we will stick with each other at the exclusion of developing healthy bonds with anyone else who is not our family not because we love each other so much but because then we don’t have to change.”

I caution myself and any readers who want to be Christians against this way of thinking. God wants us to change so much in order to be saved He requires that we be born again.

John 3 3 Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’

Embracing personal changes is at the heart of the christian life, not living in the same home for 30 years or having the same best friend from grade school. None of these are the goal of the christian life. Thus a life built around them is fundamentally not christian.

Let us not be scared to go to God in prayer and to go to others in conversation, asking how we may change for edification. If we are truly in Christ let us not be scared of the response!

Romans 8 28 And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.