Monday, January 28, 2008

Polite Conversation

Are people no longer taught the art of polite conversation? Attending a party, while you may disagree with someone during a discussion or you may notice that they have misspoken - there are correct and incorrect ways of handling yourself, of responding to someone you have only just met.

At a dinner party recently, surrounded by close friends and one couple whom I had just met (the man is close to some of my friends, his girlfriend had not met anyone previously), a conversation began about a trip that couple had taken. I was wrapped up in another discussion but they caught my attention when the woman declared that "The food was so good, you could not get a bad meal anywhere!" regarding their vacation spot.

I chimed in that I had a similar experience at another (different) popular vacation spot, and that I had, in fact, used the exact same phrase to describe it.

Woman: "I don't think so. I lived there for a year."

Myself: "Oh? Well I loved the food there. I had some of the best meals of my life."

Woman: "The food may be alright, but none of it is memorable. It's just not that good."

Myself: "How strange. That just wasn't my experience. Even the inexpensive meals from little food vendors were wonderful."

Woman: (slightly agitated) "But is ISN'T memorable food."

Myself: "I suppose it's a matter of differing tastes."
(Cue me standing and leaving the room for a cluster of people talking elsewhere.)

I want to know who taught her that this is a reasonable way to speak to a stranger at a dinner party. I have had people express opinions that I strongly disagree with at social gatherings, and when it is appropriate I may discuss our differing opinions, but I would never say to someone, "No. You are wrong." Particularly not in an instance where the facts of the matter are strictly subjective. I loved the food. She did not. Neither of us is wrong. It's immaterial.

I think the art of conversation has been lost. The ability to discuss differing views in an interested but not heated fashion. As well as the ability to discuss books, films, art and issues without resorting to scandal, vicious gossip or sex. I'm not averse to discussing sex at a dinner party, but I do not do so unless I am sufficiently familiar with everyone at the gathering so as to be certain that no one would be offended. As with gossip, I feel it shows a lack of imagination for sex to dominate the conversation. Some people cannot attend a social function without arguing with someone, making a vulgar comment that does not suit the crowd's comfort level or trash talking about anyone who did not manage to attend. I'm tired of it. Perhaps colleges (or even high schools!) should be offering courses in conversation - how to interact politely and speak intelligently - instead of assuming that simply learning facts about art, culture, literature, film, politics and religion will enable their alumni to discuss these matters like reasonable human beings.

If nothing else, I wish my friends would avoid inviting people to dinner who aren't capable of polite conversation. It ruined my appetite (and totally destroyed my buzz. A waste of perfectly good wine, I tell you).


  1. I think the internet (and other, similar mediums like texting, email, etc) is partially to blame. It has changed the way that people interact with each other, especially as there is a much greater reliance on electronic communication these days. In many instances, the impersonal nature of these mediums, as well as the relative anonymity often involved has created a situation where some people show less respect for others, because not only have we developed the habit of being more direct and succinct in our communications, but also - in the case of anonymity - we won't always be held accountable for what we say, and thus take liberties with our chosen words.

    I've come across a number of situations where people have left the most astonishingly rude comments (for me, for others), and often, one of the first things that pops into my head is wondering whether that person would make the same comment to someone's face.

    Obviously, there are also people who are utterly tactless, as this woman seems to be. That being said, when people spend so much more time sitting in front of a computer than actually interacting with people face-to-face, it's certainly easy to understand how we have lost the art of verbal communication.

  2. I second Liza but I don't think this woman who was rude to you acted so because she is using the internet all day long. I think she was rude because, well, that's the way she probably is.

    I dislike people who can't hold a polite conversation. I have met some and the most irritating thing about the whole affair is how they seem to be oblivious to the fact that they are being rude. They think they're normal, and that they are asserting some leadership status of some sort.

    I used to just ignore them like you did in this episode, but lately I have been bitchslapping them back for what they say. Probably not very polite of me, but eh, insult Tololy and there shall be retribution! Sometimes being polite to impolite people is like throwing gems among pigs.

  3. I disagree that neither of you was wrong - She was wrong. I've never met her and I can't stand her. What an incredibly rude person! I am amazed at the patience and class you displayed in the face of such ill-mannered behavior. You're behavior is quite admirable.

  4. Liza, I agree that the internet seems to have effected the way people learn to communicate! When chatting online or instant messaging, people learn to eschew any subtlety (partially because it is impractical and rarely conveyed properly) and often people extend that informality and directness into their email habits, which have destroyed any ability to write proper letters. I am amazed by what the internet enables, but I also think it's depressing how rare proper communication is anymore. Anonymity has a dangerous impact on behavior - people really do feel it's aceptable to be rude and abusive to strangers both online and in life! It's awful.

    Tololy, I do sometimes indulge my desire to put people in their place, and I definitely wanted to! ...but I try to be careful about it. Particularly in a situation like this - my friend had made a lovely meal and had gone to some effort. I could have ruined her dinner party. It didn't seem fair to do that to my hostess.

    Thank you, Jonathan! Like I said I didn't really WANT to be so composed about it. I just didn't want to ruin someone else's party in order to say what I was really thinking.

    That woman probably IS just ill mannered. She may be naturally competitive or argumentative and saying what she did may have made her feel powerful or important. At first I kicked myself for not saying something really barbed, but I also try to remember that the minute I stoop to her level I don't get to imagine myself on higher moral ground any longer. It's not much satisfaction, but at least my dignity was intact.

    There's another thing they don't teach anything about these days! Etiquette, honor, dignity and polite conversation - Sometimes it seems like they are all dying concepts!

  5. I have to say that it is sometimes a good thing for you to step up and say "what you just said was rude" because there are some people out there (me included) that have no idea they are being rude, mean or socially unacceptable. Now you are correct, some are just rude... but there are some like me who have never been in certain social situations and we have no idea how to act. It's not something you have to say in front of everyone but it may be worth your time if this is someone you have to see again to pull her aside and say "please don't tell me that my opinion is wrong, it was rude, hurt my feelings and opinions are just that, opinions and they can't be wrong." She may have just been nervous and had no idea what she was saying...

    Sorry, don't mean to sound preachy, but this has happened to me, and i had NO IDEA now nasty i was to someone or how mean i sounded to those around me because i was wrapped up in what was going on in my own head.

    And i had little to no social "training". I was never taken to dinner parties, to work parties, to big family gatherings, or anything where i would have learned some of this stuff. It's only by the careful guidance of a few close friends (you included) that i learned to walk in heels, not to burp in public, and what to wear for certain situations. I was lucky, some are not so much. I used to know i stuck out and watched others to figure out what i was doing wrong. Sometimes I understood and sometimes i couldn't get it. Sometimes i had no idea what i was doing was unacceptable until i got home and got chastised by those i embarrassed. I wish there was an etiquette class in high school. I took one in college but that only taught me which fork to use in nice restaurants... The rest i had to learn thru experience and from my beautiful redheaded friend... :)

  6. I find it so funny that I end up reading your blogs after some related event happens in my life where I feel like I want to comment, I'm telling you, it's that "psychic link" thing we have.

    Anyway, I can't agree with you more! I come from a big family and one might think that my parents wouldn't have time to teach all of their children the rights and wrongs and how to be polite and have manners, but they did and they did it well! My mother to this day still brags about how she would take us places, to friends and family gatherings, restaurants, store, etc. and how we always behaved like perfect angles. She taught us "please" and "thank you". We didn't touch things that didn't belong to us. We respected our elders. And I also agree a lot with Liza and today that parents us T.V. and video games and the internet to act as guardians to their children. And maybe part of it is that families don't get together in social gatherings or situations like they used to. The times are different now and so is the economy. My parents used to have big dinner parties all of the time, every major Holiday over the summer we'd all get together at my uncle Johnny's house who lived on a lake and had a pool, there had to be some 30-50 people at times, adults, teenagers, kids, having fun and being respectful. Today people don't really have the time and money to have those big social gatherings. I don't know, maybe it was just that I had a big family and every day seemed like a social gathering...HA!

    And I used to think it was limited by age and to younger people then me. Because I've had my share of people younger than me really say some pretty offensive and rude things. Hence the reason I've spent most of my life around people significantly older than me. But it really isn't just limited to age. And I guess I'm noticing it more since I've gone back to work. I haven't been in much of any social situation with more than 4 people in many months. And now that I'm back working, around 100 plus other people, I'm seeing the same thing. People being outwardly loud and rude and I think to myself, "How do you not know you are being that obnoxious?" I know that I find it hard to put myself in other people's shoes at times, but for me, I know when I'm being "that way" and I do it b/c I mean to. I am never unaware of how I'm acting. And the inappropriate conversations these people have at the workplace. I thought I got away from that until I had to work on Saturday. I thought I was in a Whole-in-the-Wall dive bar downtown. I think I might have gone off on a slightly different tangent, but you get what I'm saying. I think it takes great class to compose yourself in situations where you just want to lash out and class is something you are oozing with! I'm trying to learn more of the same thing myself. Go you!

  7. Thanks, Eddie. hee hee. Eddie thinks I'm classy. Cool. ;)

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