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  • Writer's pictureAndreas Kappes

Post-Vacation Musings: How rude should I be to my mother?

A couple of years ago, my mother flew in from Germany to visit and help us with looking after my daughter during a school break. One night, I can’t remember the exact circumstances, she angrily told me: “Stop being so polite”. I might have thanked her for something that in her mind, obviously, did not deserve a “thank you”. My mother embodies some of the stereotypical ideas about Germans. She prefers directness over politeness and avoids the unnecessary expression of feelings. Yet, weirdly, her remark rang true to me. I felt guilty of being too polite and I understood the sentiment without being able to verbalize to my wife – who is American – later that evening why my politeness was offending my mother. But how impolite should I be?

In one of Harold Garfinkel’s breaching experiments – designed to violate hidden social structures to make them apparent – he asked students to behave at their parents’ homes as if they were a boarder, noting their observations and their families’ reactions (1). Here is what Garfinkel wrote, summarizing some of the things his students reported when they observed their family members while taking an outsider’s perspective: “Displays of conduct and feeling occurred without apparent concern for the management of impressions. Table manners were bad, and family members showed each other little politeness.” (p.45f). And how did the families like the wonderfully polite and considered “boarders?” Not at all. Instead, family members reacted with sarcasm, irritation, and anger to the students’ new-found politeness: “”Mind if you have a little snack? You’ve been eating little snacks around here for years without asking me. What’s gotten into you?” One mother, infuriated when her daughter spoke to her only when she was spoken to, began to shriek in angry denunciation of the daughter for her disrespect and insubordination and refused to be calmed by the student’s sister. “(p.46)[i]. Politeness and good manners were not welcomed at home; rather, the ones we love the most demand interactions that an outsider would describe as rude.

Most sociological theories of politeness focus on how it is strategically used in social interaction, as a means to save face (2) – avoiding and tackling threats to the perceived prestige or status of another person; politeness is used to make everyone feel affirmed (3). Such definitions focus on the strategic aspect of politeness; good manners are used to achieve something or get something (4). And we often become aware of this aspect when we travel to another country, where people are more polite than we are used to. As a German brought up in Berlin, this basically means travelling to any other country. In interactions, we can’t help but wonder why the other person is so polite; what does she want? Yet, when talking to friends and family where behaviour occurs “without apparent concern for the management of impressions”, politeness suddenly introduces strategic considerations and people become uneasy.  We don’t want to consider our “face” when being with family. Another aspect of politeness is that it characterize often exchange relationships, in which tit-for-tat rules apply. Yet, when interacting with family member, we don’t want anything back for a favour; I don’t want my family to thank me for cooking for them; it was my pleasure.

Politeness and manners, to some degree, have no place at home. While people often feel that we are treating the ones we love the worst because we are taking them for granted (5) or some other version of the familiarity-breeds-contempt story, I would suggest that often the lack of manners at home is a sign of a happy home, where people are at ease not thinking about impressions to make or favours to trade. Of course, we want our families and friends to be considerate of one another; but this consideration should be motivated by affection, not by rules and manners. I will try to remind myself of that the next time my daughter tells me that “this was probably the worst dinner ever.”

Here is another example: “A father followed his son into the bedroom. “Your Mother is right. You don’t look well and you’re not talking sense. You had better get another job that doesn’t require such late hours.” To this the student replied that he appreciated the consideration, but that he felt fine and only wanted a little privacy. The father responded in a high rage, “I don’t want any more of that out of you and if you can’t treat your mother decently you’d better move out!””

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