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    A civil tongue

    Can some of you people get it through your thick heads that civility is a value in its own right?

    Just a second…something a little off about the tone there…[takes restorative gulp of plum-wine spritzer]…there we go….

    There’s a thread running through several of the blog posts that have gotten me exercised this week. That Riding Sun post that kind of annoyed me the other day may have sprung from a comment he made on this spot-on post of Japundit’s, which I found through Plum Blossom. [Ooh, plum! Time for another sip!] Japundit says the following:

    Talking about the weather or chopsticks may be trivial, but they [Japanese people] figure it’s the easiest way to create and maintain a pleasant relationship without ruffling any feathers. Getting involved in a discussion about politics or any other subject that generates strong opinions could easily become unpleasant for both parties and nip the potential for a harmonious encounter in the bud.

    I find that once you get to know Japanese people, they will lay out their opinions on just about any issue in startlingly direct terms. But that’s once you get to know them. First, a relationship of trust has to be established–and you do that by demonstrating that you’re capable of having lively but scrupulously polite conversations about things that don’t really matter. Topics start with the weather or how hard it is to learn English–if you show yourself to be a gentleman there, things get more interesting. If you show yourself not to be a gentleman, your conversation partner can drop you without feeling embarrassed about having made some personal revelation that you can now hold over him. Polite society works this way in America, too, though it’s hard to find.

    Oh, yeah, speaking of which, Gay Orbit notes an exchange Another Gay Republican has had with a member of Sister Talk. The Sister says this:

    We should be kissing conservative ass and playin’ nice, according to the Republican homos; for them, it’s our best chance at accomplishing anything for our team. SINCE WHEN? Since when has diplomacy ever won an oppressed group of people any damn thing?

    AGR’s response, in part:

    I don’t see how confrontation gets us anywhere. Railing against hypocrisy may make us feel better, but the people that aren’t molesting their kids, beating their wives, divorcing, and running gay porn web sites, tend to get pissed off when they’re tagged with guilt by association. Just like liberals get all worked up when they’re accused of being the root of all evil. Once they’re mad, they tend to shut their minds to anything you have to say.

    How is it, I am frequently moved to wonder, that people have not figured this out? I’m talking about those who believe that every conversation must be seized on as an opportunity to Make a Point (“I actually am cool enough to know how to use chopsticks,” “I speak languages that are actually harder than Japanese,” “There are right-wingers who make a buck from behavior they condemn”) in the most literal political sense, without recognizing that the subtext can be equally important. We all have to live with each other. I love Japan, but I’m American through-and-through–I like plenty of good-natured rough-and-tumble argument mixed in with my harmony. It keeps all of us alert and makes life interesting.

    There are limits, though, and people who don’t stay within them when it comes to political debate raise the suspicion that they won’t in the actions of daily life, either. If all you ever do is criticize your political opposition while making excuses for your team, people start to wonder whether you’re capable of mature self-criticism in your work and sex lives, too. If you hog the floor all the time, you might be the sort of person who takes a ME-ME-ME! approach to other resources, too. There’s no law against being a pain in the ass, but there’s no reason people should encourage you to be one, either.

    You don’t have to be a pushover to be polite; I certainly don’t think I am. You just have to be willing to give people a chance unless they’ve put themselves outside the bounds of civility from the get-go. You can always distance yourself later if they prove to be jerks. It’s hard to undo the damage of dismissing them out of hand if you later realize you should have been more sympathetic, though.

    4 Responses to “A civil tongue”

    1. Michael says:

      “…[takes restorative gulp of plum-wine spritzer]…”

      Nothing to do with the post. Just a notation for posterity…

      …just in case any of you ever wondered if Sean was actually gay.

    2. Kelvin says:

      Hey you watch yourself with that ume-shu! 😉

      Seriously, thanks for the link. And yes, civility is important. I think it gets a bit abrasive on the Internet because people blog, to some extent, to vent, but in person one should at least restrain from using everything as a start to serious debate. And some of the things people say are dumb enough that you should brush it aside, lest one blows a coronary debating all of them.

      For example: I won’t argue that you think President Bush looks like an ape, if I can think you’re an idiot for suggesting that is a good reason for voting for John Kerry the prune.

      It’s amazing how great the world is if people lighten up.

      As for small talk and useless topics, university students who don’t know each other that well almost always start conversations with asking how’s school going. It’s not like any of us cares, but it’s something in common and can lead to lots of other things.

    3. GaijinBiker says:

      For the record, I am not trying to prove that I’m “cool” enough to use chopsticks, I’m trying to prove that it’s silly and mildly offensive for Japanese people to be impressed about any non-Asian person who’s able to use chopsticks.

      And, admittedly it would have been hard to read this into my post on the subject, but I use “good-natured, fun” sarcasm rather than “mean and nasty” sarcasm.

      Usually the chopstick story ends up breaking the ice quite nicely on its own, since once I’m done with it, the other person knows they don’t have to be so formal with me.

      Ultimately, as with all jokes (and like I said in my comment to your other post) you have to judge your audience and the situation properly.

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      Okay, GaijinBiker. The thing is, as Kelvin says, most of them probably aren’t really bowled-over impressed—any more than they seriously mean that today’s weather is unprecedentedly warm. They’re just looking for something to natter about to keep the conversation going. Glad for the reassurance that your reaction is more good-natured than it looks on paper. Tokyo, unfortunately, does not lack for foreigners who really do think it’s their job to put Japanese people in their place at every opportunity.

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