Would you ever consider approaching an airline pilot to offer advice about flying a Boeing 747? Unless you are a pilot yourself, it wouldn’t make sense to do so. What about an attorney? Would you tell them how to practice law? Again, unless you also practice law, you likely are not qualified to offer unsolicited advice to an expert for their area of expertise.
I spent the first half of the year writing and editing my doctoral dissertation. After reading countless research articles, organizing the information, designing a study from scratch, and reflecting on thousands of hours of clinical experience, I am confident in referring to myself as an expert.
But a funny thing happened to me the other day. I made a new friend on Facebook. We are from the same hometown and have several mutual friends, so I accepted his friend request. He’s a transportation manager and self-proclaimed nice guy. He took interest in my research, asking some pretty typical questions.
Then he started offering advice. Unsolicited advice. Advice that was naïve to the rigors of psychological research. After politely redirecting him several times, I finally told him (still being polite) that I didn’t need any new directions at this phase of the study.
He responded, “Hmm. Somebody’s got an ego!”
“Excuse me?” I asked while trying to keep my cool.
“I guess you’re letting that doctorate go to your head,” he continued.
He then went on about why “women like [me]” can’t find husbands.
Note: If you have ever wondered why “women like me” can’t find husbands, it’s because we “don’t know how to talk to men.” You’re welcome.
My role was to listen politely. Never mind that he was clueless about scientific research. Perhaps I should have returned the favor by offering advice about transporting goods.
We Are Socialized to Be Polite. And to Defer to Men.
Girls, on the other hand, are socialized to be pleasing and polite, to not embarrass men . . . Correcting someone is an inherently hierarchical act. It’s saying “You’re wrong; I’m right.” Jumping in when he’s mistaken or less expert is inverting the gender hierarchy. Even though a woman is perfectly entitled to intervene, it’s perceived by men who feel entitled to a smooth exchange as socially abrupt, rude and even a form of violence. Because it disrupts the status quo and overturns his position as the default authority in the exchange.
These dynamics begin in childhood. We learn not to be abrasive or rude, especially when dealing with the male ego. Most of us would not offer unsolicited opinions to a professional outside of our field of expertise. But I can’t tell you how many times an ordinary Joe has mansplained “solutions” for complicated clinical disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The Dark Side of Gendered Politeness
Women are expected to accept catcalling, overly familiar pet names, and unwanted touching. We endure it because society tells us the men who offer them are “just being nice.” Gendered politeness causes many women to accept behaviors and situations — in relationships, on the job, and in public spaces — that don’t meet the standards for mutual respect.
You may be thinking, “Angela, I’m not really into the ‘feminist thing.’ It’s not such a big deal.” I can feel the heat of your skepticism as I am writing this. But consider for a moment what it means to fall in line with this socially prescribed behavior.
Chloe Tejada of Fashion Magazine penned the article, “Why Being Polite Fails Women.” She chronicled her experience of riding on a bus with a stranger:
I was nodding off when suddenly I realized the man was stroking my arm with his arm. I froze and thought, “Well, it’s a tight squeeze and maybe he’s not realizing what he’s doing.” But it didn’t stop. For about a half hour, from the time he sat down until the bus pulled into the bus terminal, he continued to rub my arm while I sat there, staring out the window, too petrified to tell him to get lost because I was afraid I’d come across as rude or impolite, because maybe there was a chance I was making a mistake and he wasn’t assaulting me — he just didn’t realize he was making me uncomfortable by sitting this close to me.
Gendered politeness shifts all the emotional labor to women. Somehow, we have become the protectors of everyone’s feelings except our own. Allowing strangers to refer to us as “baby,” “babe,” “honey,” and “sweetheart” is the default. Because asking them to address us by our given names would be rude.
But, hey. As long as we’re not impolite, that is what matters most. Right? After all, they are just being nice. But here’s the thing. It doesn’t feel nice when someone insists on addressing you by a name you don’t like. And it doesn’t feel nice when they disregard your expertise. Actually, it feels quite disrespectful.
The Ugly Truth
In a previous article, “Why I Don’t Feel Bad About Saying No,” I explained that we pay a psychological price when we go along with situations that don’t serve us. It starts with the post-encounter mental gymnastics we put ourselves through as we rationalize why we went along with something we knew we shouldn’t have.
When we unpack this gendered phenomenon, an ugly truth becomes apparent. We are socialized to betray ourselves to protect the feelings of others, which is harmful to our mental health. When a woman chooses to risk her personal safety because she doesn’t want to be impolite, it is a testament to the damaging effects of socialized deference.
Being Authentic vs. Polite
I prefer not to have to choose between “being polite” and being true to myself. But if there is a choice to be made, I will always choose authenticity. Authenticity as a personal philosophy refers to the ability to be true to oneself. It is an unwavering commitment to the desires, beliefs, values, and standards that keep us connected to our higher selves.
My highest self expects to be treated with respect and to be valued for all that I am. I shouldn’t have to play an inauthentic role, pretending to be less than I am for the sake of being polite.
Explaining that I’m not soliciting advice shouldn’t elicit an angry attack on my marital status or womanhood. When I assert my expertise, it isn’t an affront to anyone’s ego. Asserting my preference to be addressed by my proper name or an earned title isn’t “hurtful” to anyone. I refuse to bear emotional responsibility for anyone’s resentment toward my simple requests.
We Have to Let Go of Things That Don’t Serve Us
Academy Award-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence realized that gendered politeness wasn’t serving her once she realized she had been paid less than her male co-stars. She didn’t negotiate for more because she didn’t want to come across as rude or difficult:
I’m over trying to find the “adorable” way to state my opinion and still be likable! Fuck that. I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a man in charge who spent time contemplating what angle he should use to have his voice heard. It’s just heard. Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale, and Bradley Cooper all fought and succeeded in negotiating powerful deals for themselves. If anything, I’m sure they were commended for being fierce and tactical, while I was busy worrying about coming across as a brat and not getting my fair share.
Chloe Tejada ended her article by saying, “I wish I could go back in time and tell that 21-year-old scared woman to screw politeness and stand up for herself.” Politeness didn’t serve her well. It doesn’t serve any of us well. So, on Chloe’s behalf, and for countless other women who are still finding their voice, I will end by echoing her sentiment: