The reason this “politeness” is an issue (and in quotation marks) in a way that table manners is not, is because it holds men and women at different standards, specifically putting women into a more passive position than men. This is of course nothing new (feminists have been talking about this for decades), but the issue is that this socialized passivity not only still exists, but prevails.
If women are taught to put off their own comfort for that of others, where does it end? Ultimately, the most socially transgressive thing a woman can do is say “no”, and when that happens, all hell breaks loose. Socially, women are not permitted to say “no”. It’s one of the many reasons we have a consent problem. It’s also one of the many reasons we have violence issues that target women. The reality is that saying “no” can be very dangerous for women, especially in high-stakes situations. That is why saying “no” in lo- stakes situations is so important; we have to normalize “no”.
Even leaving a conversation with a man can be a challenge for women who don’t want to be seen as “rude” or “a bitch”:
“I think men have a hard time hearing ‘no’ from women, not because they’re not used to being denied, but because they have this power dynamic working in their minds that’s intrinsically misogynistic.
One guy, after being a little loud and aggressive during our conversation, proceeded to plead with me that he really was a ‘nice guy’ when I told him I was no longer interested in talking to him. When I insinuated that it was strange that he had to explain himself to me like that, he immediately became very defensive. He said that I was rude and he didn’t know why he wasted his time with someone who doesn’t know ‘something good when it’s looking at them.’” -Anum, 20
Furthermore, breaking the mold in big ways can be scary, or even dangerous. Not being passive in casual social situations can come off as “bitchy” towards men, such as with Anum’s experience, but women I have talked to have found taking the power back in small ways as freeing and a safe protest against socialized passivity. I myself refuse to cross my legs on the train to take up less space when a guy next to me tries to manspread. I take up all the space my seat permits, no more, no less. For others, one of the best ways to take charge of their lives can be as simple as the one thing they do most in the day:
So I decided to come up with an exercise that now I encourage all my friends to do: do not move. Walk with the confidence and power of having the right to use the sidewalk just as much as the man walking directly towards you. Do your best to make them move, even if it means you crash. It’s my way to start untraining myself of this submissive behavior and hopefully get the man you walked into to think about the way he walks down the street.” -Michele, 27
Women like Michele are powerful and important because they are making a tiny social impact every time they leave the house, a tiny social impact that has huge implications. To me, her walk says,
“we don’t need permission to take up space. We don’t need permission to choose who we want to spend our time with and where we want to spend it”.
As human beings, it should be a given to have autonomy over our own bodies and what we do with these bodies. Yes, big transgressive actions may be scary or even dangerous, but unlearning how you have been trained to be passive in your day-to-day life not only can feel liberating but can help other women feel and be more powerful as well.
For me, the woman who inspires me and brings me hope by learning to resist is my older sister. Her journey is both empowering and touching because I’ve seen the difficult road she has traveled on, and the line she has had to tiptoe on every day to get where she is now. She is one of the bravest people I know, and every day she is learning to be braver:
As a young teen, I found myself apologizing when others bumped into me or hurt me. I smiled and hugged an acquaintance even if they made the hair on my neck stand up.
I realized I was placing myself in unsafe environments for fear of hurting someone else’s feelings for saying no. Realizing this internalized need to make everyone else comfortable I began to speak about it with my closest friends. I was truly shocked when it was pointed out that you can be kind and polite but strong. You can have a voice and be comforting to others, but you aren’t required to give up your own happiness as a result.
So I began to practice this; finding that balance of being polite while maintaining my own sense of self. I would give up my seat on the train, but wouldn’t force myself to have a conversation with the stranger next to me. I would like to say now I walk strongly through the world and have found the perfect balance but that would be a lie. I know this is something I’ll always have to work on, but as I get older I am finding more ways in which I can use my own voice to be polite without losing my power.” -Lili, 23
Standing up for yourself is a process and not an easy one, but if we all find small ways to stand our ground, one day the big ways won’t feel so scary.