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Why We All Need To Be Less Polite

© Eutah Mizushima / Unsplash

Author Melissa Dahl says we need to stop avoiding conflict and embrace making things uncomfortable

A couple of summers ago, I broke a basic social norm of city life: I talked to strangers on the train. To the teen sitting to my right one evening, who had opted to listen to loud music on his phone without the use of earbuds, I asked: ‘What are you listening to?’ To the woman sitting to my left one morning, who was reading Gone Girl, I said: ‘ That book is so good, isn’t it?’ To the man sitting across from me, who was holding what looked like a large picture frame wrapped in brown paper, I asked: ‘Whatcha got there?’

For my day job, I cover psychology for The Cut, which means I read a lot of psych studies. I’d read about an experiment conducted by University of Chicago psychologist Nicholas Epley, in which he gave his study subjects a simple yet terrifying assignment: for one week, during their commutes they were to strike up conversations with whoever sat next to them. He wrote up his results in a poetically-titled paper, ‘Mistakenly Seeking Solitude’, published in 2014 in the Journal Of Experimental Psychology, and in it he claimed that his experimentees who had struck up conversations with random strangers on their way into work were happier than those who had done what they normally do (as in, ignore everyone).

His findings intrigued me. How could doing something as awkward-inducing as striking up conversation with strangers make anyone (especially me) feel happier?

This, you could say, was how I lived my life: I never wanted to make anyone feel uncomfortable, least of all myself. I smoothed over awkwardness wherever I saw it, my cowardice acting like a pair of hands running over a now-tidy bedspread, never mind what’s hiding underneath. One of my staff at work would misbehave, and instead of offering constructive negative feedback, I’d ignore his behaviour. A friend’s terrible boyfriend would make an awful, racist comment, and I’d make a joke or change the subject. Anything to lessen the tension; anything to keep things within the boundaries of social norms.

I was so convinced by my way of life that a couple of years ago I set out to write what I thought would be an anti-awkwardness guidebook, in which I would instruct my readers in living life the way I lived mine, with as little social discomfort as possible. But I ended up writing the opposite: an argument for embracing awkwardness, for learning how, and why, it’s worth it to get a little more comfortable in the midst of excruciating social discomfort. It can help us face uncomfortable truths and see each other for who we really are, rather than the image we’re trying to present to the world.

And it can help us feel more connected. True, some of my interactions on the train were weird. But some of them were so nice – they were real moments of human connection. Take the woman reading Gone Girl– for two stops or so we had a two-person book club. When she stood up to leave, she said, ‘Bye! Have a nice day!’ It was a reminder that we often have more in common with strangers than we think. Looking back on my little replica of the University of Chicago experiment, it did make me happier.

I discovered awkwardness can be such a freeing feeling. It breaks you free of social conventions and sometimes it makes you wonder why those conventions were there in the first place. Most people spend their lives trying to protect themselves from this feeling, which is why I love diving head first into it. Because here’s the other great thing about awkwardness: you can use it as a superpower to get what you really want.

During a job interview a while back, I asked for a ridiculous salary. Well, it felt ridiculous to me, in that it was much more than I was currently making. But it wasn’t ridiculous, not really. I’d done my research and discovered it was a very reasonable salary for this particular job title in this particular city, well within the average range according to a number of reputable salary-tracking websites. Even so, I said the number out loud, and... silence. The recruiter, who’d been so friendly and flattering in all of our other interactions, went cold on me, and together we sat through an excruciatingly awkward few seconds of silence. All of my instincts told me to end the awkwardness by saying something, anything, even if it meant back-pedalling on my request.

But I didn’t. Instead, I let her squirm. Soon, the discomfort became too much for her, or so I assume, because she mumbled something about having to check with the team and she hung up. (Later they came back, still interested, but I withdrew my application. Also kind of awkward.)

These days, if I hear someone say a sexist or racist remark, I call them out on it instead of doing nothing. If I need to deliver bad news, I do it calmly, without inching. Awkwardness has a way of sharpening my senses, of making me sit up and pay close attention. Social norms can be valuable, but awkwardness helps us re-evaluate them and decide whether they are necessary. I love feeling awkward. And I love making other people feel awkward, too.

Cringeworthy’ by Melissa Dahl (£16.99, Transworld) is out now

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