#112: The paradox of politeness
This newsletter feels like a continuation of others I’ve written this year (#95, #96, #102) about dismantling ideas I’ve inherited about what it means to be an adult, and learning to better commune with other people. This one was inspired by this scene in the movie Kiki’s Delivery Service:
The paradox of politeness
The other day I watched one of my favorite Miyazaki films, Kiki’s Delivery Service, and something stuck out to me that hadn’t before—a deviation from the standard feel-good movie script I’ve become accustomed to in America.
If you haven’t seen it, the movie, released in 1989, follows a 13-year-old girl set to leave home for a year to train as a witch in a distant city. She leaves eagerly by herself one night, without a plan, and when she arrives at a seaside town called Koriko, her enthusiasm immediately sours when the locals are unwelcoming and unkind. She becomes forlorn, but her depression lifts when she meets a friendly baker named Osono, who asks for her help in a moment of need. When Kiki succeeds in helping, Osono gives her a warm drink in a show of thanks, and upon learning that Kiki needs a place to stay, offers her the spare room above the bakery. At this point, Osono takes on the shape of a fairy godmother. A friendly face, an enchanting bakery, a spare room. But the room turns out to be dusty and abandoned, and in order to stay there, Osono clarifies that Kiki must earn her keep.
As these caveats emerged, I felt mild pangs of disappointment. I wanted the room to be perfect and cozy, and for Osono to tell her she could stay as long as she wanted. But I was wrong to want Osono to be flatly charitable. Instead, she’s a character with real dimension. She’s warm and generous toward Kiki, but has needs of her own and expects reciprocity. This is ultimately more compelling, and makes for a sweeter relationship between the two of them.
I won’t give away any more in case you haven’t seen it and want to (all Studio Ghibli films are on HBO Max), but Kiki’s Delivery Service is a sweet little anime about growing up. It’s also, compared to the American animated films I grew up watching in which characters are either bequeathed with altruistic saviors or celebrated for saving themselves, a story about community. It’s no mistake that Kiki’s ability to help a townsperson, versus a townsperson helping Kiki, is the first sign that she may be okay in Koriko. And yet both are required to sustain her belonging.
Growing up, I often equated goodness with altruism—giving and expecting nothing in return; probably a consequence of being raised in the church. The definition feels increasingly off to me. Boring even, or burdensome. I thought of this recently when I was hosting a party, and realized that even though I’ve gotten better at letting people bring things, my instinct is still to refuse when someone offers to do something less pleasant, like, say, wash a dish. In reality, helping out as a guest isn’t a burden. It can be satisfying to contribute and feel included in the success of the night. But insisting that everyone relax and leave the work to me is still ingrained in me as a sign of a gracious host. I suspect this has something to do with my ego. Obviously I want people to have a good time, but I also want to be seen as a good host, for people to think being around me is easy and pleasant, for people to want to be around me forever, essentially. It’s interesting that, despite writing about this topic in so many different ways, I can still connect being lovable and capable with having no needs.
This is where generosity and courtesy take on a self-centered edge, or at least self-concerned. I don’t actually believe it would be wrong for people to help me wash the dishes. I’m just afraid of what it might say about me if I accept more help than the rules of engagement dictate I ought to. Polite society often functions along these lines. Saying we’re good when we’re not, saying something is “perfect” when it’s regular, insisting no one else lift a finger. This version of civility, obligatory and rehearsed, includes a lot of bullshitting. It’s the gravity on the left side of the nice/kind and sorry/thank you spectrums.
Since moving to New York and living in more racially, culturally, and economically diverse neighborhoods, I’ve become more aware of how my race and class position play into this dynamic. There is a form of saccharine public decorum that is, in my experience, very specific to upper-middle-class Americans in what Elijah Anderson might call “white spaces.” What’s crucial about this flavor of performed goodness is that it’s self-conscious (or forced upon service workers by their bosses), and thus fairly prohibitive to real connection. To those who don’t willingly adhere, it can come off distant and false, even threatening. It took me a while to hear it that way, but for years now I’ve been trying to deprogram myself—to not treat strangers like the audience to my good manners. I still slip into the register too easily. The perfect civilian, the perfect customer. I’m not actually sure who it’s for.
I recently listened to a talk Slavoj Žižek gave in 2008 called “Politeness and Civility in the Function of Contemporary Ideology.” It’s a wild, provocative listen (I recommend it), and in it he argues that ideology forms around shared adherence to a belief system that no one even needs to believe in. You “do not need another actual subject who really believes,” he said. “The whole system of belief functions if just every agent, every individual, presupposes that there is another one who believes, even if this other one doesn’t exist at all.” He compares this to a parent and child who both pretend they believe in Santa Claus for the other’s benefit. Manners, niceties, etiquette—distinct from human decency—seem to fall in this same trap. Usually, we follow them because we assume they matter to someone else.
Meanwhile, the kind of civility proffered by Osono, the baker in Kiki’s Delivery Service, seems more grounded in a worldview. Goodness, her actions seem to say, doesn’t mean being sycophantic or altruistic or dogmatically deferential, it means being community-minded. Not merely play-acting at the role of a good neighbor, but fulfilling it. Caring for Kiki and expecting that care in return. It’s not an arrangement that feels particularly American. Here, we’re focused on self-care, self-actualization, personal life coaching, personal tips and tricks for feeling better. We may be learning to ask for help, but we’re learning how to say no when others ask us for it even more. Rarely in the dialogue around “learning to ask for help” do you hear talk about the other side of that equation. Obviously those tools can be useful in isolation, but taken together as an approach to communal wellness, they feel pretty hollow.
Politeness and decency are basically synonyms, but they feel distinct in my mind: politeness concerning the self, decency concerning the community. I used to tease Avi that he wasn’t overly sweet to people he didn’t know. He’s never been unfriendly or rude, he just never took to the song and dance of performed intimacy during fleeting interactions with strangers. Over time I’ve come to appreciate this about him. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that, despite this difference, he’s actually the one who’s more likely to talk at length to a person we’ll never see again. Unlearning my own habitual over-politeness has been a slow-burning project, and I’ve been surprised at how much effort it can still take. Sometimes I have to literally remind myself to stop being a fake little freak, but it’s amazing how much more connected I feel to people when I do.
Kiki’s Delivery Service is filled with characters who are kind to Kiki and easily accept her kindness in return. Refusing would seem to be its own form of rudeness—not due to some unwritten rule of decorum, but because Kiki’s sense of belonging is predicated on her ability to contribute. Kiki has to be available for deliveries whenever Osono needs, but when Kiki gets sick, Osono is there with tea in hand. This balance is crucial, and simple enough to get across in what is essentially a kid’s movie. It’s telling that, as an adult living in America, the message struck me as profound.
My favorite article I read last week was “The Humiliating History of the TSA,” by Darryl Campbell for The Verge, on who airport security theater is for and who it hurts. Last week’s 15 Things also included a few things I bought last week—new shoes, new pants, a new kitchen appliance—and more. The rec of the week was smoothie essentials and favorite recipes, which means I’m now very excited to go to the grocery store.
Hope you have a nice Labor Day weekend,