Oct 31, 2012 0 Share

So Polite It's Rude


Illustration of waiter carrying place and grinning.
iStockphoto

Right now I'm watching “Fawlty Towers,” a really funny British comedy about a “bed and breakfast” in the English countryside—and particularly its incompetent owner Basil Fawlty. (John Cleese, who played Fawlty, is a comic actor par excellence.) 

In this episode, he got an American couple who ordered Waldorf salads. In fact, the husband wanted them so much he paid the hotel an extra £20 for the chef. Just one problem: The hotel didn't have all the necessary ingredients. 

Eventually, Fawlty went over the top in trying to explain the situation politely. He started off by talking about how they have no problem getting all the apples they need to make his salad—of course begging the question of the other ingredients. Then, he went into hilarious detail about a delivery truck accident and just how the driver had broken his arm when he tried to unload the goods. Finally, the customer cut him off: “You don't have it, then?” Cue laughter. 

Welcome to my world, buddy. 

One of my pet peeves is people who try to “soften” bad news by talking around it. I've never understood it … and I don't just mean I don't see why people do it (although that's true, too). 

Rather, for the longest time I literally didn't know what was going on! As an Aspie, I grew up with very little knowledge of subtleties. For example, if I had read "CDC Announces Americans Should Make Plans to Say Goodbye to Loved Ones" in The Onion years ago, I would not have understood it—after all, why would a government agency, even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), be in the business of telling citizens to call their loved ones? Only relatively recently have I been able to discern that this parody article meant that the CDC was basically telling us we were all about to die of some horrible unspecified disease and that's why we need to talk to our families one last time.

I shudder to think how many times as a child, teenager and young man I said things like “So what? What are you talking about? That's irrelevant!” In my mind, all I was doing was trying to resolve something that made no sense, and stating a fact in the process. In most other people's minds, I was being obtuse, possibly on purpose, since their hints were perfectly obvious. (To them, anyway—in fact, I'm not sure they even saw them as specific hints, as opposed to just getting the point across.) They also may have thought I was being horribly disrespectful since people don't like it when you call what they're saying “irrelevant.” (Many people feel it implies that what they're saying is unimportant—and thus that they're unimportant.) 

Looking back on many of those past conversations, I feel like a fool. Most people knew something I didn't, and I didn't even know that. (In former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's terms, that was an “unknown unknown” for me—not only didn't I know it, I didn't even know I didn't know it. Since I didn't know about that kind of knowledge, I couldn't even know to ask about it. You know?) 

I know I'm far from the only person who prefers the news straight up. Now that we know many people prefer to be indirect about negative things, if you'll make an effort to be more direct if we need it, we'll make an effort to better understand what you're talking about. Deal?