Is maintaining one's boundaries beyond the bounds of etiquette?
October 27, 2012 3:56 PM   Subscribe

How does the etiquette concept that "The only thing ruder than rudeness is pointing out said rudeness" not imply letting oneself get walked all over? Help me understand this, if you would?

AskMe is turning into a Boundaries 201 resource for me, apparently...

So, there's this idea floating around that "The only thing ruder than breaching etiquette is for someone to point that breach out." I've seen variations on this theme stated time and again, by people from the level of Dear Abby & colleagues on down.

This troubles me, because while I’d like to be polite, it seems to imply that self-assertion and etiquette are in this case almost mutually exclusive. The notion that calling someone out on their transgressions or standing up for oneself automatically makes one the less-polite party seems like a free pass for any bad behaviour that people choose to indulge in.

I have run into this explicitly a few times, from the strangers who get horribly offended when I refuse to answer their overly personal questions about my heritage or my disability, to the former friends who have been terribly upset by my restating a boundary they'd violated and asking them to respect it. As the "former" part implies, I haven't put up with this treatment from supposed friends. However, it saddens me that I get tarred with labels like "hostile" "rude & nasty" or "drama queen" for daring to say that I don’t feel I should be treated poorly or would like to have my boundaries respected, especially by those who claim to care about me.

It's all starting to remind me of this Privilege Denying Dude, really.

Though I do note the irony of people telling me I've broken the roles of etiquette by speaking to them about their poor behaviour - since of course by doing so, they've just violated the etiquette precept themselves. It's like an infinite recursion of rudeness! Whee!

I have read arguments that someone violating or ignoring boundaries has violated the social contract and therefore any obligation to be polite is nullified. Other people seem to feel that maintaining decorum matters all the more in the face of indecorousness from other people.

So is it the case that pointing out a boundary violation or standing up for oneself is inevitably a breach of etiquette - and if not, how do you do so in a socially acceptable manner? Or is this one of those strange semantic games where it's okay to call out inappropriate behaviour, but only if one is careful not to say that it's inappropriate or impolite?
posted by Someone Else's Story to Human Relations (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I think that rule is meant to apply to breaches of etiquette that aren't hurting anyone, such as using the salad fork to eat the entree or wearing white shoes after Labor Day. I might even say that it can apply when people do things that are rude, but don't really have to concern you unless you purposely involve yourself, such as gossiping. Basically, it's meant to avoid needlessly embarrassing people who haven't really done anything wrong, and to keep pleasant occasions pleasant. However, when people transgress your boundaries, just as when people get way too drunk and belligerent at dinner or air their marital arguments in front of others, they're the ones who have turned things unpleasant in the first place, and you're entitled to excuse yourself or otherwise decline to be a part of it. I don't think that any real etiquette expert would say that you're being rude by refusing to be abused.

In fact, Miss Manners and other mavens have dedicated quite a bit of ink to finding ways to respond to the sorts of questions you mentioned without getting trampled on. I think some of them recommend replying with, "Why do you want to know?" and then whatever they say, say "Oh," and then change the subject. Others have suggested saying something like "Oh, let's not talk about that," and then, again, changing the subject.

People are sometimes going to be sore at you for refusing to do exactly what they'd like you to do. But that doesn't mean you're being rude; it means that they're being boorish. By all means, refrain from telling the hostess that she has served the wrong wine with the fish course, because that would embarrass her for no real reason. But you absolutely don't need to acquiesce to other people's intrusive rudeness in order to avoid hurting the feelings of someone who obviously doesn't care about your feelings.
posted by decathecting at 4:09 PM on October 27, 2012 [23 favorites]

Well, I think there's a difference between "Not pointing out someone's rudeness" and "letting someone push your boundaries." I always took the Dear Abby advice along the lines of, "Don't point out when someone is using the wrong fork" not "let them stab you repeatedly with the fork while you smile and look charmed."

Refusing to answer a question is not rude. Asking your friends to treat you a certain way is not rude.
posted by muddgirl at 4:12 PM on October 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

It's not necessarily rude to offend someone. But to be offensive is rude. Confusing? I suppose. And it can be hard to keep cool and kind when someone is losing their mind. But as decathecting says, there are plenty of Miss Manners approved ways to say, I'm not going to talk about that, or, I'm not going to stand for that.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 4:12 PM on October 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

To be perfectly blunt, yes, there is a definite prevailing societal belief that defending one's boundaries is rude, especially if you're female, and it is a Bad Thing and should be disposed of. (This is something that a good self-defense course will emphasize - at my school, a big chunk of a three-hour self-defense seminar involves practicing saying the word "no." Just that, "no," in response to a long series of essentially trivial yes-or-no questions. It is shockingly difficult.)

Set your boundaries and defend them however you need to. If people think less of you for it, then they are not healthy people to spend time with. You can certainly defend your boundaries without starting a big conversation about how what the other person is doing is rude - and that's usually advisable, until you get to the point where you need someone to stop a pattern of behavior as a last-ditch effort to save the friendship - and decathecting is totally right about minor etiquette violations, but your boundaries should be your priority.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:12 PM on October 27, 2012 [17 favorites]

First of all, I have never heard this rule.

Second of all, if someone asks you an inappropriately personal question, and your response, rather than "how dare you, you prick," is some kind of polite murmur that neither answers the question nor publicly calls the questioner out, you have not been walked over. You have denied the person the answer to the inappropriate question and you have won the interaction.
posted by escabeche at 4:13 PM on October 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Various intonations of "Excuse me?" work wonderfully.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:15 PM on October 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

By the way, if you're looking for specific, polite strategies for deflecting these questions, this old AskMe has some great suggestions. Like I said, some people are going to get angry if you fail to satisfy their every curiosity, just as some people get angry when people they find attractive fail to return their affections or when people they would like to work for decline to hire them. That doesn't make it rude to decline to give people what they want, it just makes them rude for getting angry at you.
posted by decathecting at 4:22 PM on October 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Manners allow you to be gracious even when you don't want to be. Standing up for yourself and yelling down the other person are two completely different things.

It is good to assert yourself but you should do it as politely as possible. When someone asks about your disability or heritage, a good comeback is a chuckle, a wave of the hand, and a gentle response of, "I can't think why you would ask a complete stranger such a delicate question." Said with a smile, this gives the response that you think their question too silly and pointless to even answer.

When it comes to boundaries, a gentle yet firm approach is best. Instead of directing all the wrong on the other person, it is gracious to accept all the responsibility, even when it isn't all you. It's all in the phrasing. Instead of saying, "When you come over to my house unannounced, it shows me what an insensitive jerk you are," you could say, "Please, in the future, don't come over without calling first. I know it sounds silly but I value our time together and when you catch me by surprise you just aren't getting the best me."

Smile more. People read your body language more than they listen to what you are saying.
posted by myselfasme at 4:35 PM on October 27, 2012

I don't think you can be called a drama queen if there is nothing dramatic about your responses. I live in NYC and questions about salary, rent costs and other things are pretty common and I find them intrusive and embarassing. So you have to deflect, dodge and avoid. But without saying 'oh my god, I find your questions rude!'. But I am from somewhere else so sometimes I laugh and say 'that's a very American/direct question to ask'. Or something like that. Which maybe sounds offensive but again, if you are being friendly and NON-confrontational, how can the other person be offended? Re salary I say it's public knowledge (govt job) and you can look it up. When a hedge fund guy asked me how much I got paid, and I deflected the question back to him, he got very offended. But there you go, just turn the tables on people. But without at all acting like you are ruffled. Don't bring the drama and don't accuse people of being rude. Deflect in a subtle way. Period. If someone asks your heritage you can say "I'm American" (or whatever) and look confused. Or whatever fits. It's never someone else's job to point someone else out as being rude in a confrontational, aggressive or loud manner. It's like escalating an argument- usually pointless and ineffective.
posted by bquarters at 4:50 PM on October 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

Etiquette-good: "please don't walk all over me"
Etiquette-bad: "walking all over me is rude!"

The first sets a boundary and is polite.

The second makes a judgement and is rude.
posted by tel3path at 4:56 PM on October 27, 2012 [11 favorites]

In line with previous posters, the version of this claim that I have heard (and at any rate, the version I subscribe to) is not that it is always rude to have boundaries. Rather, it is that rudeness does not excuse retaliatory rudeness, and explicit condemnation is often (though not always) impolite.

Several Miss Manners books are devoted in substantial part to explaining why being polite doesn't require you to be a doormat. To deal briefly with the examples in your question:

-- you do not have to answer nosy questions. Polite responses include the direct but non-confrontational ("I'm sorry, I'd rather not say") repeated as often as necessary; the deflecting ("Why do you ask?"); the ignorant ("I don't know"); etc.

-- "boundaries" may be a more complicated case, since these can range from self-regarding rules of conduct (not going out on Friday nights; not kissing on the first date) to rules that make demands on others (not allowing people in your presence to express objectionable views).

Perhaps if you have particular etiquette situations you'd like help confronting politely, you can ask in future weeks.
posted by willbaude at 5:36 PM on October 27, 2012

I would make one additional point: Not responding harshly to a rude comment or inquiry gives you an internal satisfaction that harshness does not.
A rough example: When somebody cuts you off in traffic, you can lean on the horn, give them the finger, etc. Or you can slow down a little, enjoy your music, appreciate the fall colors, and note that the world still includes jerks.
Who has won the exchange? Clearly you have. And you've probably added a few minutes to your life. Not a perfect analogy, since you'll never see the roadhog again. But still.
posted by LonnieK at 6:56 PM on October 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whether or not this proverb applies depends on whether you are/feel powerful in the situation. If you're in a position of strength and someone is rude it may be polite to let the weaker person off the hook, or cover for them. I love the story of the duchess who saw a lower class guest slurping soup with the wrong spoon and immediately did the same herself to prevent anyone from looking funny at him. the former friends who have been terribly upset by my restating a boundary they'd violated and asking them to respect it. As the "former" part implies, I haven't put up with this treatment from supposed friends.

That's exactly the right response. In severe cases, defending your boundaries may mean putting people outside them.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 11:53 PM on October 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I admire the optimism that many of you display when it comes to the efficacy of polite demurrals; I can assure you that people can and have been terribly offended by non-confrontational responses to things. I have used pretty much every example you've given, and most of them lead straight to "Why won't you answer?" which either escalates the situation itself, or sees it escalate after any response affirming the boundary (such as a smiling "I'd rather not talk about it" or "I'm just not comfortable sharing that"). It is quite an experience having a bus driver yelling at you down the vehicle to lecture you about how you should have told him the details of your disability because he only wanted to help, or being followed out of a grocery store by someone shouting about how rude you were for not answering their questions - ask me how I know.

However, my question is not about the specific examples - I just figured that they would help clarify what I was referring to. (And also make it clear that I wasn't talking about salad forks, but that I'd seen the principle explicitly applied in boundary-violating situations - both by advice columnists and in the broader world. I think the first letter in this Dear Prudence column is a fair example of a querent being told it would be inappropriate to assert herself despite being treated terribly.) Nor is it about the value of responding harshly (though there's an interesting tangent in where firm/emphatic/forceful becomes "harsh" and why it's incumbent upon someone who's just had their boundaries stepped on to be polite or gracious - that's approaching The Tone Argument, I'd think?). Nor is it a request for polite deflections of rude probing. I am interested in the questions I asked.

Reading the responses this far, it seems many think the distinction is in the question of whether the rude behaviour is actually called out as rude. I think restless_nomad really got to the heart of the matter, though - perhaps the kyriarchical component is stronger than I initially thought.

The other examples I thought of were:
- the common reactions of bystanders to a woman's rejection of a man touching her inappropriately or his skeezy advances;
- what happens when someone in a wheelchair protests a person moving their chair without asking; or
- what happens when someone declares that strangers don't get to touch his/her hair, whether or not the touching is already happening.

All of these involve boundary violations, all are likely to engender strong reactions, and all regularly engender responses along the lines of "Well, you didn't have to be so RUDE about it!" But they're all also most likely to take place across a kyriarchical divide. Food for thought, I guess?
posted by Someone Else's Story at 12:24 AM on October 28, 2012

If the rudeness involves someone "helping" when they are actually not (such as moving a wheelchair without permission) then that adds another layer. They think they are being kind although they are actually stepping over boundaries. A normal boundary-setting response feels, to them, that their kindness is being rebuffed. So they bark. In those cases, a brief explanation of what they did wrong can sometimes head off that reaction. "I know you're trying to help, but please don't move my chair unless I tell you it's ok."
posted by mono blanco at 12:55 AM on October 28, 2012

I can assure you that people can and have been terribly offended by non-confrontational responses to things.

Yeah, that's going to happen. I don't really know what to say beyond that. Some people are jerks to me. Being nice to them won't cure them. Being rude to them won't cure them. So basically, my philosophy is that I have permission to be rude to people, and to be considered 'rude', if that's what it takes to protect me from jerks.

It is quite an experience having a bus driver yelling at you down the vehicle to lecture you about how you should have told him the details of your disability because he only wanted to help, or being followed out of a grocery store by someone shouting about how rude you were for not answering their questions - ask me how I know.

Do you have a safe space you can vent about specific kinds of jerks (online or in real life)? I know this sort of experience is quite common in some communities, and I know it helps me to vent about it.
posted by muddgirl at 5:38 AM on October 28, 2012

(One more thing: I don't think Dear Prudence's advice was right there, and I don't think in general that advice columns are a very good way to figure out what actually works for a general person in navigating through life.)
posted by muddgirl at 5:42 AM on October 28, 2012

All of these involve boundary violations, all are likely to engender strong reactions, and all regularly engender responses along the lines of "Well, you didn't have to be so RUDE about it!"

You can't control other people's responses. You can't change other people. Haters gonna hate, rude people are going to be rude.

You don't say whether your response to strangers (where personal questions are rude period and you're under no obligation to temper your response) is the same as to those you have ongoing relationships with but for the latter, consider that your personal boundaries are not universal, and it's important to establish boundaries in ways that invite rather than shut down communication. For example, family heritage questions are practically de rigueur among acquaintances, and you list it as a boundary-crosser. So context is important, as is understanding the other person's reason for asking. It's absolutely fine that family heritage questions are off-limits for you, but you can establish your boundary without being personally offended by the question.
posted by headnsouth at 5:59 AM on October 28, 2012

I admire the optimism that many of you display when it comes to the efficacy of polite demurrals; I can assure you that people can and have been terribly offended by non-confrontational responses to things.

I think that most of us were addressing the etiquette of such responses, not their efficacy. I absolutely believe you, based both on your stories and on my personal experiences, that people are incredibly, shockingly rude and refuse to take no for an answer when they make really offensive demands of others. But the fact that people get mad at you has very little to do with whether you're doing anything wrong. It may be that they're going to get mad at you no matter what you do, and that's on them. You can't control their feelings, and you don't have to sacrifice your own feelings and needs and comforts in order to make them happy. As long as you are polite, you're doing it right, and if they get upset, you can at least take comfort in knowing that you did the best you could under the uncomfortable circumstances they chose to create.
posted by decathecting at 11:26 AM on October 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

There really isn't any way to control other people's emotions and reactions. All you can do is to do your best - be polite in expressing your preferences, "I'm sorry, I'd rather not talk about it" instead of "How dare you ask!" etc. But being polite to someone is no guarantee that they're going to be polite to you, or happy. It's just doing what you can to be confident that the other person's reaction really isn't your fault.
posted by Lady Li at 12:48 PM on October 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

The only advice columnists I take seriously are Carolyn Hax and Miss Manners. Don't be misled, Miss Manners is an awesome feminist powerhouse who offers many empowering tools.

The other recommendation I'd add in is the Gift of Fear. I actually think that between the Gift of Fear and Miss Manners you have a very useful toolset for asserting yourself effectively in ways that help you feel as positive as possible about yourself even after yucky encounters.
posted by Salamandrous at 9:13 AM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

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