If the foundations of good manners are caring for others’ comfort, listening more than you speak, and glossing over the poor manners of others, “good manners” actually grossly disadvantage women.
Two days after I moved into my house, our new handyman Pete came to fix the windows. After showing him the problem, I made a polite retreat to my home office. Pete called out a regular commentary on all things window, and when he was done making them worse (“I’ll need to come back and take the whole frame apart!”) I got up to politely see him out.
“Working from home, are ya?” Pete asked, putting his bag down and settling in for a chat. My heart sank. Twenty minutes later, as Pete explained Australian politics to me, I wondered if in Pete’s mind, not-quite-fixing the windows meant he’d bought 20 minutes of me finding him fascinating.
I’m a polite person. I was raised in a family of women who take good manners seriously. So seriously, in fact, that I wrote a book on the subject for the Y Generation. But every minute I spent as Pete’s captive audience was another minute I wasn’t making my living.
Every time I drew breath to tell Pete I had to go back to work, he’d launch into another tirade. I couldn’t bring myself to be rude myself by interrupting, so like a masochist, I endured it.
The first principle of good manners is to treat whoever is in front of you with respect. Listen more than you talk and show interest in the other person. Make others comfortable in your house. But above all, good manners means never, ever letting someone know when they have none.
Finally I couldn’t stand it. “I’m really sorry,” I interrupted, “but I’ve got to get back to work.” Pete looked like I’d slapped him. “Oh right,” he snapped. “Busy busy busy!”
Later I realized I’d got it wrong. When I wrote the manners book, I’d tried to update manners by covering “new” areas like sex, drugs, and day jobs. But what traditional manners guides needed most was a feminist upgrade. For if the foundations of good manners are caring for others’ comfort, listening more than you speak, and glossing over the poor manners of others, “good manners” actually grossly disadvantage women.
These are the three etiquette rules we must learn instead:
1. Politely decline unpaid emotional labor
How can we show “concern for the other” without doing their unpaid emotional labor?
Women are expected to love nothing more than providing a sympathetic ear and smoothing over hurt male pride (“was your boss mean to you?”) without getting the same in return. Is it because women are so much better at feelings? No, it’s because we’ve been groomed since birth and taught an emotional language that many men either don’t have or are unwilling to learn.
But make no mistake—this is work. As any sex worker will tell you much of their labor isn’t physical, it’s emotional. Being paid by the hour, they probably don’t resent time spent consoling, unconditional-positive-regarding, and generally bolstering clients’ spirits.
The trouble is, even women who are not paid for these services are expected to provide emotional labor free of charge.
New manners: Are all about letting other people feel their own feelings. You are not self-help Cliff’s Notes. Other people have access to the same resources you do—therapists, books, etc.—teach them to use them.
Make this your new mantra: “Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.”
2. Step back socially so others learn to step up
You remind him of his mother’s birthday (she blames you when he forgets), you’re expected to arrange social stuff with his friends and their partners (“you’re better at that stuff”) and on Christmas day he asks you what gifts “we” bought his family.
New manners: “Thoughtfulness” is good manners. But letting someone outsource thoughtfulness to us like we’re an Indian call centre is not.
Your new mantra? Quit complaining and stop enabling.
Stop buying presents, remembering birthdays, being social secretary for dinner with his family. Yes, there will be a period of time where you feel very uncomfortable, like others disapprove of you. Stay strong. Give it enough time, and he’ll either start doing this stuff himself, or he won’t. Either way your own mother still gets a birthday card, you still arrange stuff with your own friends, and guess what? A whole chunk of time and space in your brain once marked “social secretary” is now reserved for your own leisure. Remember leisure?
3. How to politely head-off a mansplainer
How can we “listen more than we talk” without offering ourselves up masochistically for mansplaining?
Male or female, a good host gets the conversation going until everyone relaxes into an easy to and fro. But outside of the house, this host role is often seen as exclusively feminine, with the ladies expected to find whatever gentleman may be present absolutely fascinating, but not have any opinions to share herself.
Old manners: Polite openers such as “Have you read / seen / what’s your opinion on X?”
New manners: Give mansplainers three conversational prompts max (including “how are you”) and if they don’t ask you anything in return, politely turn the conversation to your cat’s urinary tract infection until they melt away.
So that’s it! Three essential etiquette rules for women. Are we missing anything?
Alice Williams is a Melbourne author and yoga teacher.