The Politeness Problem

One of the rules of “polite behavior” is not making other people feel uncomfortable, and that means not pointing out their shortcomings and failures, even (perhaps especially) obvious ones. Bringing up people’s flaws tends to be embarrassing, and harping on them comes across as cruel.

For example, if someone is clumsy due to a disability, it would be rude to draw attention to them dropping a glass. It would be

But politely not-mentioning-flaws is dependent on other people being already aware of their flaws–in this case, clumsy people are presumably not volunteering to carry your fine china. But what happens when people aren’t aware of their own failings? People don’t generally appreciate criticism, especially if they don’t believe they deserve that criticism.

There are three general approaches to the problem:

1. The Shit Sandwich 2. Be Rude 3. Retreat

“Shit sandwich” refers to the custom in fiction critiquing communities of “sandwiching” criticism of what’s wrong in a story between two compliments. For example, “Wow, I can tell you put a lot of work into your Smurfs/Harry Potter crossover. However, I think Gargamel defeated Voldemort with the flux capacitor a little too easily. Voldemort is pretty strong in the books and I think your story would have more tension if Gargamel had to work harder for his dastardly triumph. Overall I thought it was really creative and loved the part where Smurfette gave all of the house elves makeovers.”

Sometimes you can’t think of two nice things to say about a story. Then you lie and say you liked something about it, because “This story sucked from top to bottom and made me want to wash my eyes with bleach” tends not to inspire improvement. Even if a story has tons of problems, people can only focus on improving so many at once.

The shit sandwich works by softening the blow of the criticism and making the critiquer sound friendly and non-hostile. It reassures the writer that the critiquer is trying to approach the work evenly, appreciating its good and bad, rather than just looking for an excuse to insult someone.

But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes people react with anger and hostility to any criticism, no matter how softly it is framed. “How dare you not love my Thomas the Tank Engine Chainsaw Massacre? Horror is exactly what the toddler set needs!”

When the shit sandwich doesn’t work, people tend to escalate to option 2, Rudeness: “I threw up while reading this. There is no way I would read this out loud to my toddler.”

If that doesn’t work (or the mods step in,) people resort to option 3: avoid each other.

In online critique groups, avoiding problematic people works fine. Out i society where people often have to be around each other (you don’t get to pick your co-workers or fellow subway riders), it works much less effectively.

As a society, we are pretty bad at acknowledging our own flaws, politely pointing out unrecognized flaws, and acknowledging justified criticism. Instead we flail about yelling “I don’t suck, you suck!”

I could write a bunch of shit sandwiches about different groups, but chances are you’re already familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of each group. Women are great at nurturing but can be over-emotional; men are courageous and daring but also commit the vast majority of crime; Asians are really smart but many don’t take time to relax with friends; whites run nice countries but many of them are lizard-people; blacks are really creative but often aggressive. Have I covered all of the stereotypes?

I’d like to think that people could dispassionately take stock of their personal weaknesses and try to do better. I’ll never be a quantum physicist, but that doesn’t stop me from reading about about it. But society seems more inclined to shut down any and all criticism on the grounds that self-improvement isn’t as useful as screaming your opponents into submission.

The alternatives to politely recognizing our own failings and trying to work on them are either becoming ruder or avoiding each other. People have been trying to avoid each other for decades–first in the Great Migration, blacks decided to avoid Jim Crow and Southern whites. Then crime skyrocketed in urban areas, and whites fled to avoid blacks. But this is incredibly inefficient–not only have whole transit systems had to be re-built to handle the flow of commuters going in and out of the cities every day, but millions of people lost money they’d put into their houses and communities were destroyed.

And there is only so much avoiding people can do: sooner or later we meet each other on the streets or in the office, at school or in the park. No matter what we think of each other, we are all–for the foreseeable future–stuck in the same country together. We live under presidents and lawmakers voted for by other people.

If we can’t avoid each other, then what? ? Rudeness? Violence? Anger? A world increasingly run by HR departments?

We’d better figure something out.