Why being polite fails women

Photography by Fox Photos/Getty Images

When I was in my early twenties, I was assaulted on a GO Bus while commuting to work.

That sentence is hard to write even now, 10 years later, because for years I brushed it off as being nothing more than a “misunderstanding” – my misunderstanding.

Here’s what happened: an older man, who was maybe around 50 years old, sat beside me. It can get a bit cramped on the GO. Seats are paired in twos so that sometimes people might experience awkward touching. (“How to Avoid Touching A Person On Public Transit Without Making It Awkward” is a story that needs to be written ASAP.)

I was nodding off when suddenly I realized the man was stroking my arm with his arm. I froze and thought, “Well, it’s a tight squeeze and maybe he’s not realizing what he’s doing.” But it didn’t stop. For about a half hour, from the time he sat down until the bus pulled into the bus terminal, he continued to rub my arm while I sat there, staring out the window, too petrified to tell him to get lost because I was afraid I’d come across as rude or impolite, because maybe there was a chance I was making a mistake and he wasn’t assaulting me – he just didn’t realize he was making me uncomfortable by sitting thisclose to me.

Fear of being rude. That’s what one of the “Mole Women” on the Netflix show The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt said to Matt Lauer on The Today Show was what led her to being held captive in an underground cult for a decade. Lauer’s response is not only funny, but also, sadly insightful:

“I’m always amazed at what women will do because they are afraid of being rude.”

Sometimes, for women, being polite is necessary because of the unpredictable ways men will react. (Haven’t we all had that creepy guy get angry with us for brushing him off?)

Columnist Daisy Buchanan recounted a story for The Guardian, in which her sister came home upset after a so-called “friendly” man made comments about her legs and asked if she had a boyfriend. “I really wanted to ignore him, but I didn’t want to be rude!” she said.

But “being polite” and sweet has also been drummed into women since we were girls.

There might be a solution for that. The new au-courant thing to help women be less polite is a plug-in for Gmail called Just Not Sorry. The app is designed for women who, in their emails, use what the app’s creator, Tami Reiss, calls “undermining words” such as “just” and “I think.” (For the record, men use these words too.) When someone types these kinds of words, they get underlined in red. (Get it? It’s as if the words are misspelled! For shame, ladies!)

For better or worse, the app does appear to help women show more authority and confidence in their emails, but it also shames them for their use of language and forces them to change the way they communicate so the receiver of the message is more likely to respond in an agreeable way. And when was the last time men were told they have to change the way they speak? I, for one, think (see what I’m doing there?) this is BS.

Historically, men also aren’t told to keep their opinions to themselves or to be less aggressive when pursuing a goal, whether it be career or otherwise. Women, on the other hand, are still being told to keep their mouths shut if they want to be respected.

Take Kate Reardon, editor of the UK’s Tatler magazine, who told a group of teenagers in 2014 that girls should focus on “being polite and respectful” to be successful. In other words, don’t speak your mind or else no one will like you or take you seriously. It’s harmful messages like these that made Jennifer Lawrence, one of the biggest movie stars in the world, feel like she couldn’t ask for a pay raise when she made the film American Hustle.

“I would be lying if I didn’t say there was an element of wanting to be liked that influenced my decision to close the deal without a real fight,” Lawrence wrote in a Lenny Letter, after the Sony hack revealed that she and Amy Adams made less than their male co-stars. “I didn’t want to seem “difficult” or ‘spoiled.’”

When we tell women their use of language is wrong, we’re failing them. When we tell women they shouldn’t be assertive, we’re failing them. When we tell women they should be polite, we’re failing them.

Instead of creating apps that shame women; instead of writing articles that pick apart how women speak; instead of telling women they should be “more polite,” we should be writing our own stories about intelligent women who don’t care whether they’re liked. We should be teaching our sisters, cousins and daughters about confidence and consent. We should be role models for teens in school who might not know how to say ‘No.’

I wish I could go back in time and tell that 21-year-old scared woman to screw politeness and stand up for herself. For now though, I have no time to be afraid of not being liked. And neither should you.