Written by Andreas Kappes
A couple of years ago, my mother flew in from Germany to visit and help us with looking after my daughter during a school break. One night, I can’t remember the exact circumstances, she angrily told me: “Stop being so polite”. I might have thanked her for something that in her mind, obviously, did not deserve a “thank you”. My mother embodies some of the stereotypical ideas about Germans. She prefers directness over politeness and avoids the unnecessary expression of feelings. Yet, weirdly, her remark rang true to me. I felt guilty of being too polite and I understood the sentiment without being able to verbalize to my wife – who is American – later that evening why my politeness was offending my mother. But how impolite should I be?
In one of Harold Garfinkel’s breaching experiments – designed to violate hidden social structures to make them apparent – he asked students to behave at their parents’ homes as if they were a boarder, noting their observations and their families’ reactions (1). Here is what Garfinkel wrote, summarizing some of the things his students reported when they observed their family members while taking an outsider’s perspective: “Displays of conduct and feeling occurred without apparent concern for the management of impressions. Table manners were bad, and family members showed each other little politeness.” (p.45f). And how did the families like the wonderfully polite and considered “boarders?” Not at all. Instead, family members reacted with sarcasm, irritation, and anger to the students’ new-found politeness: “”Mind if you have a little snack?
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