Extract from my International Women’s Day Talk in Perth 2017
I see politeness as a precipice that's so easy to topple off, be pushed off — or in my case — jump off. There are so many DON’TS, aren't there, in the world of politeness? But some symbols of impoliteness have fallen off the list in many households…Yes, Acts of politeness do change over the decades e.g. Remember the "No talking with your mouth full!” edict? That seems to have gone out the door.. Now we live in an era of takeaways and eating in cars...
And is there anyone in the audience who remembers a time when "a gentleman" always pulled out the chair for a "lady" at a restaurant.
By the way, while we’re on the subject of "ladies"… When someone calls me a “lady” I often respond (depending on the situation) by saying sotto voce with a smile: 'I know I’m a woman, but I’m not sure if I’m a lady.' You see there’s a line you can step over if you smile… and as we often say in Australia — to the bewilderment of many tourists — especially Americans — 'Maybe I'm taking the piss.'
I was asked to come up with a title for my ramblings on "politeness"— my favourites were all too long. Like: "How I learned to queue, but never learned to love it." …another one was: "Why I don't like hugging but am too polite to tell people." I finally settled on “don’t call me a lady’
Politeness is a set of rules. Behavioural norms. But if you think you’re sailing smoothly on your own placid pond wait till you go overseas, things can go topsy-turvy. Maybe that’s why I avoid going to the lovely land of Japan…famous for strict formalities and elaborate etiquette…
Politeness and rituals—are they the same I wonder? Politeness can be a two-edged sword, it can cross the border into gentle ribbing or sarcasm, and of course in Australia how we love sending people up; to their face or behind their back and don't forget to laugh if you’re called a "silly bastard". Apologies to any Yanks –oops sorry!! I mean Americans in the audience.
Can you be outspoken and still be polite? Maybe. It’s all in your style and how you dress it up e.g. 'I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with what you just said.'
Or — perhaps the less polite but still not over the top:
'C’mon do you really mean that?'
Instead of 'You don’t know what you’re talking about you idiot!' or worse still: 'Why don’t you just shut up, you fuckwit!'
My Mother taught me to be polite but concepts of shame and honour were also instilled… growing up in WAP (White Australia Policy) days meant I also developed a sharp tongue. It’s been tamed but it’s always there lurking in the background …Let me give you an example…
Now people are always asking me 'Hanifa, is a lovely name…where does it come from?' Give me 50 cents for every time I’ve been asked that question. It’s always couched politely and I’m sure it’s meant purely out of interest or curiosity… but after more than half a century of answering this question, over the last few years I’ve come up with an answer that I’ll let you be the judge of.
Is it polite? Is it impolite? Am I descending into the swamplands of rudeness?
'Where were you born?' or the more subtle 'Where does your name come from?'
'I come from a desert country,' I answer, gently and ever so politely. 'You have a guess where I was born.'
Off they start… the deserts of Rajasthan, Delhi, Lahore, Karachi…
'Further south,' I gently prompt whereupon they switch to Morocco, (their geography is often a little skewwhiff). 'Further south,' I prompt in gentle tones, smiling encouragingly.
Of course they give up and it’s then that I tell them (—not a smirk in sight) that I was born in Kalgoorlie and that both sets of grandfathers came here in the 1860s.
Now you be the judge… am I being impolite?… Boy oh boy if I am it feels good! Am I being a true blue Aussie and sending them up? Usually they laugh at themselves good-naturedly and I join in — laughing with them…never laughing at them…tempting as it is.
Taking the piss?? Of course not! Admittedly I leave out the fact that I’m a Muslim or they might duck and run for cover!!
Some people can be polite and you can still dislike them intensely .
'Please explain,' said Pauline Hanson. She didn’t bang her fist and yell 'Explain!'
Another e.g. of her politeness : Invited to partake of a the new takeaway craze the halal snack pack, she replied "Not happening. Not interested in Halal, thank you. I don't believe in Halal certification.' ….