Polite Conversation

One of life’s biggest challenges is that of speaking up.  I’m not talking about making a presentation at work, delivering a wedding speech or any of those other goose-bump inducing public-facing talks.  I mean saying what needs to be said in the moment, within a small group, or maybe even one on one.  In other words, calling someone out on wrongful speech.  It is hard to do on many levels: hard to gauge when it’s best to leave well alone; hard to muster the strength and presence of mind to speak calmly and clearly; hard to quickly assess and balance your own motivations. Racism, sexism, homophobia, dismissing people who live in poverty – we come across so many examples in the media, and we shout and rant and rave at the screen.  Attacking will get us nowhere, though.  In shouting at our newsfeed we self-appoint as judge and jury, we’re holier than thou, we become the overly-righteous prig.  And if we fall into that trap, we can end up spouting words as offensive as those noxious ones we are trying to combat.

It is hard to stay calm and thoughtful and say to someone: “I don’t agree with your words and here is why….”.  Part of it is about acting in the moment, growing a spine, addressing what has been said there and then; the sooner we do it, the calmer we might be as we’ll not have had time to let the issue simmer, then come to the boil.  Me, I’m terrible at it.  Mostly, I let myself off the hook by telling myself it’s none of my business.  And there isa lot of ‘blah blah’ out there that we ought to let go of. “It’s just an opinion,”as S. wisely says.  Many arguments (especially with people we know well, or live with!) are well-trodden paths of intransigence.  Such arguments are really only about differing points of views, the clucking and pecking of harmless differences that spin out of control until someone is graced with a dawning that says: ‘big deal, this really doesn’t matter anyway, let it go…..’

But some words areinsidious; some are said to hurt and undermine, or poison and spread division – that’s the time to speak up, and if you don’t it will eat away at you.  I talked to A. about it earlier this year. Told him I was in a situation where a bald, unapologetic racist ‘joke’ had been told and I said nothing.  The conversation moved on and I felt terrible about letting such words hang in the room.  “It’s situational,”he told me kindly, absolving me from my lack of action.  “Was anything going to be gained by calling it out in that instance?”  I just don’t know.  That instance was unusual because, mostly in life, we end up surrounding ourselves with like-minded people; there is great security to be had in the midst of ‘our kind, our type’.  It’s natural and comfortable, but far too insulating.  Apparently our social media feed (as if we didn’t notice by now) knows all of our political and social leanings and filters media to us according to our sensitivities/flavour/taste so we are increasingly ‘chatting’ in a echo chamber, the same views being batted around, shouted louder and louder between the same friends and like-minded communities.  I know someone who has signed up for newsletters from a political party whose policies she stoutly disagrees with.  Signed up so that she can quietly, in her own time, digest their arguments; not to concertize her position, but to remain open to different ideas and to the possibility of change.

In this age of division, I’m beginning to think that it is a difficult thing to do: to open yourself to new ideas, to groups and communities you wouldn’t necessarily be inclined towards.  Notice the next time it happens, notice when you are part of a mixed group, and your insulation has been ripped away.  I’m going to try to put myself there and see how I get on.  Will something be said that makes my blood boil?  Will my eyes open wide with amazement in what I am learning from this new person?  Or will I swirl my drink, say ‘yes’ occasionally, and bide my time until I can slope off across the room to find someone who doesn’t make my eyes glaze over?

Cheese and wine party, by Norman MacCaig

Strange, for instance, he said, to suppose

Animals differ from us in being chinless

Only, or having no calves to their legs.

I swirled by drink and thoughtfully said, Yes.


But structure, surely (she was structured all right)

Modifies modes till even the most formless

Becomes a kind of figurative abstract.

I thoughtfully swirled my drink and said, Yes.


As I told the Principal (the voice made nicks

On my brain’s membrane) Tony and Princess

Margaret assured me I was right.  Don’t you…..?

I swigged my drink and said, thoughtfully, Yes.


Outside, the Meadows lay (chinlessly) under

An abstraction of stars, figured and thoughtless.

Oh, mannerless planets, use your influence

To choke in my throat that bad word Yes.

4 thoughts on “Polite Conversation

  1. First off, good morning. Secondly, this is exactly true. Speaking up in the moment is hard to do. It is hard to tell someone that a certain kind of behavior or comment will not be permitted without being called out.

    I really enjoyed this piece. Thank you for sharing such detailed commentary.


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