Manners and the American Female

I’m a rude person.

I am a woman who speaks her mind.

But then, I repeat myself.

I’m actually a very polite person. I’m Midwest nice, meaning I hold doors open for people, I say please and thank you, I smile at people and hold their gaze when they’re talking to me. I say excuse me, though sometimes it comes out a little brusque when a person doesn’t listen the first time. I’m very patient. I joke with friends that I’m already accustomed to English mannerisms because I will simply “tut” at a person instead of calling them to the carpet on their rudeness in person.

But I also don’t take a whole lot of crap from people. Little slights may get a raised eyebrow, but bigger ones will get you a quick, snappy, possibly even rude reply.

A couple of weeks ago, I came in to my volunteer gig at the Humane Society to find an older man casually walking his dog through the cat room, entirely oblivious to the hissing and annoyed meows of the cats around him. Politeness was the last thing on my mind in that moment, though I did call him sir.

“SIR! You need to get out of here. You cannot have dogs in this room.”

He reacted like I’d walked up and slapped him in the face, and picked up his beagle into his arms as though to protect him. “I’m not doing anything wrong!” And he stood there, as though daring me to remove him. He was bigger than me, and there was no way I could have physically removed him. But, being an experienced volunteer who knows the staff by name and who is in a position of authority in the cat room, I stood my ground.

“Sir, you cannot have dogs in here. You need to leave. Now.” On the word now, I raised my voice to Preschool Teacher Levels and pointed at the door, and moved myself to stand between the man and the cat kennels.

“Rude,” I heard the man mutter as he walked back out into the hallway with his dog. I sighed, shook my head, and turned to the other customers browsing, quickly switching back into “firm but polite” volunteer mode, introducing myself and stating the rules of the cat room with a smile. The rest of my shift that day went without incident. I’d made a scene and clearly annoyed at least one patron, but I did my job and I enforced the necessary boundaries to keep my charges – the cats – happy and unstressed.

I can’t help but wonder how this situation would have happened this way if I was perceived as male instead of female. How much male privilege would have affected that situation. Would I have gotten an apology instead of a defense? Would the man have considered the fact that he was unthinkingly creating stress in the cats’ environment? Would my tone have been perceived as authoritative instead of rude?

When Fox News host Megyn Kelly asked Donald Trump about his sexist statements about women during the Republican candidates’ debate on Thursday, the backlash was immediate and furious. Trump called Kelly “not nice” for asking such a question, and threatened to be “not nice” in return. He even went to far as to imply that Kelly was on her period and that was the explanation for her rudeness.

Trump’s goal in that moment was to reset the narrative. For his supporters, the moment became about Kelly’s perceived rudeness in daring to ask a public figure about his public statements about women. Asking the question at all became the focus of criticism – she was “rude” to call him out, to paint him with such a negative brush in public, to have an opinion on the matter at all.

It is apparently “rude” for people on the receiving end of oppressive and prejudiced remarks to actually make comments about those remarks.

And this ultimately is why our metrics of politeness and kindness have to be considered carefully. For many, I’m a rude woman because I bother to open my mouth about things considered “impolite” by many. We like to think we’re beyond the world where women shouldn’t speak on politics or religion or anything in between. But in reality, we still live in a culture where a woman bothering to open her mouth is perceived as a threat of the worst kind.

And as long as we continue to perpetuate the idea that women who speak up are rude or unkind, we are never going to get into a culture where women are understood as beings who can contribute to the conversation. We’re never going to stop being perceived as our gender first and as a human second.