Thoughts on manners: Being “reasonable” and being angry

Manners are such an amorphous term. They are often equated with etiquette and which fork you are using at the table. But in the Regency, manners had a different and distinct concept, which I find very useful.

Manners are an outward expression of your opinion of others.

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is described as, “his manners, though well bred, were not inviting.” What this means is that though he was correct on all the points of etiquette, the way he executed those points made it clear that he disdained the people to whom he was speaking.

I’ve been thinking about this distinction a fair bit recently, in regard to a number of conversations going around on the internet. I’ve been getting emails from people, or comments on my blog, thanking me for being “reasonable” and “classy” in my responses to various upsets, most recently around the Hugo awards. What disturbs me about these is that the people writing to me don’t seem to understand that I am angry.

Because I am not raising my voice, people are mistaking my manner.

When I appear calm, and collected, it is easy to discount my reaction because my manner tells you that I am calm. It reduces the urgency of the situation. My manner seems to suggest that I am not angry, when I very much am. I may begin quietly, trusting that the other person will respect my concerns. But when I am not listened to, when my words are discounted, then my manner must change. I must express my outward opinion by yelling.

Telling someone that they need to moderate their tone to be taken seriously, ignores the fact that they have likely been expressing their opinions in a moderate tone for quite some time and haven’t been taken seriously. For instance, women and people of colour have been feeling excluded from SFF for decades, and have felt unsafe for decades. This is not a new situation. What has changed is that people are at the point where they are yelling. Their manner is expressing their feelings and those feelings are full of rage.

The thing is… the reason that I can be “polite” and “reasonable” is because other people are expressing the anger for me. I have the privilege of being quiet only because other people are bearing the burden of our shared fury. Without the people willing to shout, the concerns would be dismissed. Look at the suffragette movement. Women had been talking about equality for hundreds of years before that, and it wasn’t until the early 1900s when women began breaking windows and chaining themselves to buildings in protest that the cause was taken seriously. Then the “reasonable” women were able to negotiate, because their sisters had borne the burden of shouting to create a space in which their words could be heard.

This is, I think, something that is really important to understand: Being quiet does not mean that one is any less angry. And if you want to deal with people who are “reasonable” it is important to listen to them the first time they express their concerns.

And when you do? Listen with respect, because that is the correct manner.

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38 thoughts on “Thoughts on manners: Being “reasonable” and being angry”

  1. In a certain part of the country, being polite is something you do with strangers and people you don’t like. My own mother is exquisitely civil if she doesn’t like you. It’s when she warms up to someone she teases them, etc.

    I am trained that way, too. The more I disagree and dislike someone the more formal my language gets.

      1. Exactly. My mom was a Memphis debutante and formal correctness meant she was only treating the person “properly” because she was too much of a lady to show her dislike or contempt for them in public.

        This did not have anything to do with a person’s station in life; I saw her polite manner towards mayors, high ranking church officials, and major donors to her charity, but effusive and warm towards her favorite supermarket checker.

      2. Holland Dougherty

        Same in my family. Heck, when I’m really mad at someone I get icily polite. I detest yelling, so dropping my voice, becoming extremely polite, and enunciating hard is basically my way of warning people they’re on my last nerve. My mom is similar. We’ve all mastered the way of using “sir as if it rhymed with cur” to paraphrase Pratchett. We’re not particularly Southern, but it is definitely something common to my family.

        1. And we haven’t even gotten to the cut direct, much as many of them deserve it.

          There’s WAY more escalation we could do.

    1. I wasn’t trained that way, but I do the same thing, by instinct or inclination. And if I’m *really* angry, I go silent.

  2. I think your interpretation of the effect of the suffragettes may be a case of post hoc ergo propter hoc. An alternative reading of the history is that the features of society which had led to the traditional gender division of roles and labor in many different society were changing, making that division unstable.

    Most obviously, in a society with a high infant mortality rate–pretty much any society in history prior to about the beginning of the 19th century—producing and rearing children is something close to a full time job. Add to that household production, and you have close to half the adult population funneled into the job of housewife. As infant mortality fell and more and more production moved out of the household, that division of roles made less and less sense.

    To test the alternative interpretations, I think one would have to look at a variety of societies in which the other changes were happening but in some of which there was no equivalent of the suffragettes, and see how much difference there was in the outcome.

    1. I could have cited similar actions in the civil rights movement, abolition, Ghandi’s work in India, or women’s lib of the 1970s. The patterns are the same, and the pushback against those changes is also predictable.

      (As a side note, it sounds as though you are basing your family model on post-Industrial revolution England. May I suggest looking at a history of Luddites to get a better sense of context for that model?)

  3. Well stated, Mary. I’d have taken the easy correlation and blame it on the inflammatory or vulgar language of modern vernacular obscuring the truly angry language, except that you point out the suffragettes, which is an extremely valid point that points to a systemic problem rather than the mode of the day.
    I wish there were a way to make people listen more and plan their defense less.

  4. Yes. I am very polite until I have something important to say and I am being ignored.

  5. Query: Does “SFF” in your post mean “Science Fiction and Fantasy” or “Science Fiction Fandom.” My involvement in fandom has been pretty peripheral—an occasional con—so I can’t say how much women were or were not involved in the past. On the other hand, quite a sizable fraction of successful authors are female, and have been for decades, so if that is what you think women were “feeling excluded from” I would suggest that the feeling did not match the facts.

    1. You are correct, SFF is a common abbreviation for Science Fiction and Fantasy.

      What I am referring to, in part, is men dismissing harassment or reports of discrimination by saying that such things didn’t occur. Since you’ve said that your involvement in fandom has been pretty peripheral, I would suggest that you might want to educate yourself a bit more about the facts before solidifying your opinions. There’s a series of essays in Women Destroy Science Fiction, including an interview with writers such as Urusla K. Le Guin and Nancy Kress talking about their experiences.

  6. I’m hoping that you manage to channel it into some good writing. Strong emotions. Divisive issues. Conflict!

  7. “As infant mortality fell and more and more production moved out of the household, that division of roles made less and less sense.”

    This argument seems to be predicated on the assumption that the gendered division of labor ever made sense. Housework and child rearing, regardless of how time consuming they may be, are not necessarily women’s work.

  8. Mary, are you talking about your posts? If so, is there any way you can use polite conversation and also connote anger? Just writing “I am angry” doesn’t even seem to convey anger adequately. Without facial expression and body language, it would seem you would have to use angry phrases, which would not be considered in good taste. Ideas?

    1. I don’t think a lot of this is actually about conveying anger as such; it’s about compelling someone to listen. Using a person’s emotional reactions to loudness, offensive expletives, hyperbole, aggressive tone and behavior, and other demonstrations of anger is one way to compel people, and is reasonably effective. It’s also something that many unprivileged people have access to, albeit often at personal cost and risk.

      This is likely also part of where some “tone argument” responses come from — offense at being compelled by people one normally has privilege to ignore.

    2. I’m just tired enough (packing for book tour tomorrow) that I’m not sure what you’re asking. I think… I think you want me to give an example of being angry in text without cursing, yes?

  9. It’s a moving goalpost though, isn’t it? If you’re quiet they ignkre you, if you’re loud they complain about tone, and if they acknowledge you they still don’t listen to what you say, just how you said it.

  10. I’m not female, and can’t, from experience speak to these things. But, for me, in a tense situation that I very, very much care about, I get very calm and precise in my words. It may, in part, be what made me (briefly) a law professor. I don’t want to say something I regret, but can never retract.

    So yeah, FWIW, when I’m angry, I’m very calm and polite. My reasons may not be the same (I don’t want to burn bridges and/or get sued) but what you say makes total sense.

  11. For quiet anger in writing, I think one of the greatest examples is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.

    At the time I write this, it is all too relevant to the situation in Baltimore, Maryland. Which towns and cities should we also be examining right now, but won’t notice until they too catch fire?

  12. Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey

    As Eric Flint, that labor lefty and SJW from Baen Books, has pointed out in a couple of his 1632 books, it is very useful as a labor or community leader to be able to speak to power quietly and firmly, BUT have a hard-core cadre of barely-restrained constituents to whom one can point and say, “Hey, if you don’t listen to me, you’ll find yourself dealing with THEM next!” As a labor leader (AFSCME Council 32 in the house), I’ve been both the Calm Voice of Firmness, and the Crazed Radical to be Pointed to with Alarm, at different times.

  13. Unrecognized in many of the times a “tone argument” is leveled against people who’ve suffered real oppression (as opposed to the imagined oppression of the privileged) is that a polite argument has been made quite frequently before actual anger came about, and was belittled both in rude and “polite terms”.

    If you get insulted by someone in polite language, it’s still an insult. The book, The Bell Curve is racist nonsense, for example, and people who maintain otherwise are actually being racist. Yet they’ll keep maintaining that they’re not.

    White people who define to black people what is or isn’t racist, straight people who define to queer people what is or isn’t anti-queer, and men who define to women what is or isn’t sexist are in fact being horribly rude.

    The problem is that no one seems to be able to talk them out of thinking that they’re the polite ones, and the people they anger who express anger are rude. It’s not culturally acceptable to do so *because those sort of people are the ones who’ve invented the culture that makes the judgements on manners*.

    So much of what the dominant culture calls “manners” is the dominant culture protecting its self from ever having to deal with the anger of people who’re not in the majority.

  14. Oh, yes, this. I was born and raised in southern Brazil, a culture that values cordiality and good manners. In most of the country, manners are considered something you use with strangers and people you dislike, to the point that people from other regions consider us cold, unfriendly and generally angry. That last one seems like a non-sequitur, but it happens whenever they ignore our polite requests and require us to move into angry demands (I mean, historically, people from my culture have actually marched onto the country’s capital, tied horses on an obelisk and took over the government. That was in the 1930’s.).
    Since I work in a company with offices in different parts of the country, we have culture clash from stupid things like how an email was worded (if you’re polite and formal, they think you’re mad at them or hate them or something) or the amount of small talk required before you ask a work-related question.
    It’s maddening, because all my instincts say it’s terribly impolite to call my boss by a nickname or ask someone about their kids while I should be working, while their instincts say it’s impolite not be over friendly. There’s no middle ground here :/

  15. I have been discussing on the net for a long time. My experience has been that expressing anger always backfires. Your historical examples are interesting, but the internet is so fundamentally different from any platform of communication that came before that using history as measuring stick might not work. You do not see each others faces and there is no journalist that reports on tone. In my experience, everyone that doesn’t agree sees anger in what you say. It’s instantaneous replies can show up minutes after you have had your say, and there are disingenuous ways to drown out someones words, like Sockpuppetting and Sealioning. Using actual angry rhetoric just seem to make you easier to drown out. It’s better to do it the way you do it. Calmly inform people that yes, you are angry. I just realized that you are probably very good at this, but posting in case you might think my comment has any value for your other commenters.

    1. “…the internet is so fundamentally different from any platform of communication that came before that using history as measuring stick might not work.”
      First of all, I’ll say that I’m not confining this notion to the internet.

      Second, text based arguments performed for an audience of readers have been going on since the printing press was invented. Take a look at the pamphlet arguments during Elizabethan England or the flame wars in SFF zines.

      Third, the point of this is that when someone says, “There’s a problem” that one should listen instead of telling them that the problem doesn’t exist. In any scenario that you come up with, the way to keep things from escalating is to listen the first time.

      1. I need to admit I didn’t know there were flame wars before the internet. But there is still a big difference, today written discussion is held pretty much in real time.

        I also need to admit I took for granted that this was an entry into the Gamergate/puppy debate, I realize that I was probably wrong about that. I am a person that lives a lot on the net and that is where I have experience, so what I say next is about communication on the internet.

        On the net, when you say “there is a problem”, you reach a lot of people. You will reach people that respect what you have to say, and you will reach people who are too insecure to handle anyone challenging their world view. You will also reach the trolls, those that find people to mess with because they think messing with people is fun, no matter how derogative they have to be to do it, and who derive pleasure from it even when it means they are playing devils advocate.

        Right now, if we take showing anger as a way to get through to people, rustling them to wake up, things are very confusing. Anger already seems to be the rhetoric of choice for those who works to make the perceived minorities less heard. And the best way to disarm them seems to be to be calm, logical and dispassionate. Doing that in the discussions I have been involved in in Facebook groups seems to help more inclusive people to speak up in support, people who usually keep lurking to not draw the abuse you generally are subjected to when speaking up about these things. Getting a higher number of accepting individuals into the discussion helps take the edge of the sealioning.

        I pretty much agree with all you’re saying, including that you are right to be angry, and that it’s the not listening when someone says “there is a problem” that is the first escalation. It’s just that getting drawn in to escalation makes it easier for repressive and manipulative people to obfuscate.

  16. Thank you for writing this.

    For more than 30 years, there have been anti-nuclear protests, sometimes violent, in certain parts of Germany ( Although agreeing with their cause, I always thought that the protester’s actions only made people notice their violence instead of the valid reasons behind it. Now I think I see – they did make people notice.

  17. As for the history of feminism article you linked to, did you happen to notice how that article contains several of the following: “[citation needed.]”, “[by whom?]”, “[clarification needed]”.

    In other words, the article could be greatly improved upon. Here is a brief 30 minute documentary about the British suffragette movement:

    Hunger strike and the women being force fed played far more important role than smashing windows and committing arsons.

    Not to mention how some criticism could be placed on the British society as a whole, as in some British Commonwealths there was suffrage for women albeit with limitations. Or how in Europe Finland and then Norway gave women their right to vote while the struggle was still going on the British Isles.

    Thus, I do not share the notion that the acts of violent protest hastened the passing of Suffrage on the British Isles.

  18. A terrible side effect of spats between authors is that they result in mountains of written material. Since there’s already plenty of that out there, I’ll try to keep this brief.

    You said: ” But when I am not listened to, when my words are discounted, then my manner must change. I must express my outward opinion by yelling.”

    I wonder if you (and what I will loosely refer to as the “anti-Puppy crowd”) have applied this logic to your own behavior toward the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies campaign. Virtually no one listened to the first two Sad Puppies campaigns – they were polite, they were organized, and they were ignored (from what I hear). It was only this year, when bomb-thrower Vox Day turned his guns on the Hugos, that there was a reaction, and the reaction was something like (I’m paraphrasing): “AIEEEE BATTLE STATIONS REPEL BOARDERS ALL HANDS TO THE GUNS!”

    Perhaps if more attention had been paid to the previous overtures and someone had said “you know, you’re right, implicit in ‘diversity-fic’ is a certain amount of smug rejection of existing norms and iconoclasm and perhaps that’s something we should look at” you wouldn’t be looking at the Hugo slate you’re looking at today.

    1. I’m not very informed about F&SF internal matters, and I was still very aware of the 2014 Sad Puppies campaign. That year, dozens of unrelated bloggers that I follow (many of them outside the field of F&SF as well) discovered the Sad Puppies, discussed their reasoning, and rejected them. The hundreds of Hugo voters that year seemed to agree. If there was a problem with the Sad Puppies in 2014, it was not lack of noise or awareness.

      Before throwing a bomb, make sure the people who hear the bang will go “Hmmm, they have a point,” or at least “Hmmm, they’d have a point if they weren’t so loud about it”.

  19. Well, the WSFS certainly seems to have heard the Sad Puppies and Vox Day this time around.

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