Sunday, June 17, 2007

Being told off.

Yesterday I went to an old manor house owned and run by the National Trust. In one room I mindlessly touched a door hidden in a wall. Immediately I was told off by a guard with the words "don't touch please!"

In spite of the guard using what I consider to be the rudest word in the English language, i.e. please, I didn't consider the guard to be rude or out of line. Yet, the incident provoked emotions in me that took me by complete surprise. I apologized, left the room and continued the tour around the house. However, inside I was feeling humiliated and angry, I just wanted to get out of there and vowed never again to visit a National Trust site.

The National Trust is a snobbish and stuffy organisation and avoiding it will be a pleasure, but my strong reaction to what happened is admittedly immature. The incident somehow transformed me back into the boy who was always getting in trouble and constantly being told off. All I heard was my teachers correcting me and I felt again the burning skin on my cheek as a teacher in a fit of range smacked me!

PS. 'please' is contrary to conventional wisdom not a polite word. The word is almost always used to disguise what would otherwise be considered to be a rude or aggressive sentence. Attaching the word to a command, such as 'don't touch, please' or 'pass me the butter, please', does not make is less of a command, it simply allows the speaker/writer to be authoritative, rude or aggressive without public condemnation.

4 Comments:

At 19 June, 2007 04:13, Blogger Johnny said...

Getting called out by a rent-a-cop at a museum is a very humiliating experience. It happened to me at MOCA in LA. I was helped however by a visitor who, moments after I had moved along, caused the piece I had touched to fall!

I had never been so happy at someone else's mistake ;)

 
At 19 June, 2007 10:12, Blogger karlund said...

This is indeed a catch22! I've never quite understood the "please" either. Non-danish speakers should know that we really don't have that word in our limited vocabulary.

Unfortunately if you start leaving it out, which I blatantly did for a long time, you will be perceived as being rude. This is mostly due to the fact that the command-style sentence that normally entitles a please, is indeed rude in English.

So there we are. You can't win either way...

 
At 19 June, 2007 18:18, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, when using please after a "don't touch" I suppose it is quite meaningless

Karlund's comment makes me think of other instances where custom is different between cultures.

In some African cultures it is considerd impolite to stand when talking to someone who is your superior. You should be on your haunches. You should also never look your superior in the eyes when talking to him (or at any time for that matter).

In Tibet you greet another person by putting your tongue out at him or her. Imagine doing that in Europe!

That's the only two I can think of right now, but I suppose if I had to think a little harder I could come up with a few more.

Gordon

 
At 20 June, 2007 06:56, Blogger Torsten Pedersen said...

Johnny, no such 'luck' in my case, although I did think of the recent incident here in England where a man who fell and smashed some 'priceless' ancient vases.

Karlund and Gordon: Yes, politeness is very much a question of culture. However, for me politeness is a question of attitude and cannot be reduced to a single word or formula. Neither can it be forced onto others.

Languages that don't have a word for please forces the speaker to choose his words carefully if he/she intends to be polite. English on the other hand allows an individual to be rude while appearing to be polite.

Just as the incident at the manor house evoked strong emotions due to prior events, my dislike of the word please also derives from past experiences where people have got angry and even yelled at me for omitting the word please in an otherwise polite sentence.

 

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