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June 11, 2009

Food for Thought

Via Kbob in Katy:

"Remember that when you lose your temper, you are out of control. And when you are out of control, you have lost control. That means that someone else now has control, and you are under their control. Think before you cede control. Think before you lose your temper. Think before you lash out in anger."

Related (and very good) thoughts here:

Ah – La Politesse. You know how annoying the French can be – That je-ne-sais-quoi that gets under your skin and makes you want to drop-kick the French right into a gutter? Well, it doesn’t have to be that way. You just have to learn to love that very Parisian form of social jujitsu: La Politesse.

La Politesse is a tacit code of social conduct which demands politeness in all social situations (well almost). The French use it mostly to genuinely express kindness to others. It is what makes a bustling city like Paris function civilly and with decorum. Without it, Paris would have all the charm of The South Bronx. [Warning: Strong Language] In France a humble: “excusez-moi, madame” will go a long way in winning friends and gaining respect.

La Politesse is also used in situations where every fibre of your being wants to throttle the neck your fellow man, but you don’t. It keeps and resolves confrontations before they turn ugly and violent (for the most part). The French do not like direct confrontation. Instead they prefer to attack the resistance to their problems and issues tangentially; in other words passive-aggressively. They still achieve their goals of smacking some one down, or overcoming a bureaucratic obstacle, but without all the nastiness and overt drama. Because of this the French are masters of irony, sarcasm, and double entendre. Once they break-down the resistance on their opponents, they can then deal directly and frankly with their issues (but always politely). The goal is to win people over to your side, without drawing blood.

On occasion, the French will become violent; but only when their opponent is waaay over bounds: physically violent, or egregiously insulting. They will also escalate to direct confrontation if while being polite, your opponent doesn’t get the point. They will however do so only after a final warning. It may go like: “Monsieur, it would be of bad form if I cast aside mon Politesse, to get my point through to you”. Then and only then if you don’t get the point, you will bring out the old Vercingetorix out of them.

VDH illustrates this concept nicely via an anecdote:

I came back to Selma thinking, “I am not going to be the grouch my grandfather was, yelling at neighbors, worried all the time, nervous, seeing the world as rather hostile, hoarding a tiny stash of savings, worried as if bugs, the government, hired men, weather, and markets were out to destroy him. I’ll farm with my Bay Area manners and sort of think, “I will reset the farm, and things will at last work as they should” (not thinking that my grandfather raised three daughters, sent them to college while mortgaging the farm in the Depression, and spent on himself last, and was a saint compared to my pampered existence in the university).”

One small example of my late coming of age. A rather brutal neighbor (now dead and not to be mentioned by name (de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est)), an immigrant from an impoverished country, a self-made man, veteran of infamous fights and various bullying, shared a communal ditch. We talked and exchanged pleasantries–at first–at the standpipe gate. He lamented how rude my late grandfather had been to him, and even had made unfounded accusations that he was less than honest (he was also sort of playing the race card, remarking about the prejudicial nature of California agrarian culture).

I'm sure you can tell where this is going:

... after about 3 months of sizing me up (at 26, I confess looking back I was not 1/8th the man my grandfather was at 86) he began stealing water in insidious ways: taking an extra day on his turn, cutting in a day early on mine, siphoning off water at night, destroying my pressure settings, watering his vineyards on days that were on my allotment. Stealing no less! And in 1980!

Here’s how I rushed into action. First, I gave a great Obama speech on communal sharing and why the ditch would not work if everyone did what he did. Farmers simply would perish if they did not come together, and see their common shared interests. He nodded and smiled-and stole more the next week.

Eventually, though, La Politesse proves ineffective. Sometimes, no matter how we try, we can't avoid a show - and possibly the application - of brute force. But the end of the story is worth noting:

In an hour he drove up in a dust cloud. He was going to smash me, get his football playing son to strangle me, sue me, bankrupt me, hunt me down, etc. He swore and yelled-I was a disgrace to my family, a racist, a psycho, worse than my grandfather. He was going to lock my gates, steal all my water, and indeed he leveled all sorts of threats (remember the scene in Unforgiven when Eastwood walks out and screams threats to the terrified town?-that was my neighbor). I got out with large vine stake and said something to the effect (forgive me if I don’t have the verbatim transcript-it has been 29 years since then), “It’s locked until you follow the rules. Anytime you don’t, it’s locked again. Do it one more time and I weld it shut. Not a drop. So sue me.”

He got up, screeched his tires, blew a dust cloud in my face, and raced down the alleyway-honking even as he left.


For the next ten years until his death, he was the model neighbor. He would stop me with, “Victor, I shut off tomorrow, half-a day early-why not take my half day to jump start your turn?” And indeed we finally began to have philosophical discussions (he was widely read) about Sun-Maid, Carter, Reagan, the US, literature, etc.

Yesterday, after having dealt with a particularly unreasonable client, one of my sales guy friends said something that amused me:

"We should call you The Client Whisperer."

I've been in one form of customer service or another for nearly 3 decades. Often by the time a client gets to me, he or she is angry, frustrated, and not at all inclined to listen to reason. Rarely, they are belligerant or personally insulting, though that is rare because I seem to be able to project some indefinable air which whispers, "You don't want to go there."

In all the time I've worked, I've never had a single encounter that didn't end well. And yet I've also said things to clients that most people (including, at times, my bosses) wouldn't dream of saying. All without permanently alienating them.

I believe that a huge part of this is that when people do wrong by you, part of them knows what they're doing and knows it's wrong. They also know just how they'd react in your place. If you upset that assumption by treating them fairly, but most importantly if you refuse to stoop to their level, it's often possible to nudge them into grudging respect and even elicit an apology. There are two keys here:

1. You must project a credible willingness to back up what you're saying with action. Showing any sign of weakness is a fatal mistake. Consider your position carefully and then refuse to renounce that stand. This is where the GOP goes wrong all the time - they bluster up front and then capitulate and apologize even when they shouldn't.

2. Begin by giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt but if you're pushed to the wall and conflict escalates, leave them some way to save face.

No one likes to lose, but if you haven't done anything unforgiveable and don't rub your opponent's nose in the fact that he just lost, you may be surprised with a huge attitude change. It's all about that principle of matching force I mentioned yesterday.

If people think you can be pushed around, they'll take advantage of you.

If you go nuclear on them without sufficient provocation, you'll make a lifelong enemy who will be waiting for the chance to slip a knife in your back.

But if you use just the right amount of force - especially if your opponent knows you gave him the benefit of the doubt until that was no longer possible - a surprising number of people will gauge what just happened and conclude that it's in their best interest to back down.

Posted by Cassandra at June 11, 2009 08:06 AM

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Now THAT is truly excellent, Cass! I think part of what was missing is the explanation you gave - that, yes, politeness will get you far, but what do you do when someone is threatening and not responding to politeness?

I think you gave perfect examples, and an excellent illustration that there are not only two choices - doormat or psycho.

Posted by: airforcewife at June 11, 2009 10:09 AM

"...I seem to be able to project some indefinable air which whispers, 'You don't want to go there.'"

I don't suppose that would have anything to do with visualizing a trivet flying towards the soft spot on the back of their heads, would it?

Posted by: DL Sly at June 11, 2009 10:42 AM

Gotta keep an eye out for that trivet. 'Tis a ver' dangerous t'ing!

Posted by: Help! I'm being Oppressed! at June 11, 2009 11:24 AM

Oh, aye, head on a swivel works best for those who would test the tranquility of the Blog Princess.

Posted by: DL Sly at June 11, 2009 11:49 AM

I once worked in a department where the manager in charge (two levels above me) used to bully everyone. In meetings she would crucify people. Most of the other employees were women, but even the guys just quavered and ducked for cover.

One day at a staff meeting about 2 months after I took the job, which was after 3 months of unemployment, it apparently became my turn in the barrel. "Ron, what's happening with 'x'?" "Well, in my opinion here's what we need to do, ..." "YOUR OPINION? IF YOU'RE WRONG IT'LL COST US HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS! HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO WORK OFF OF YOUR OPINION ..." and she ran on a bit. When she stopped I look her in the eye and said "I don't make widgets. About 50% of what you pay me for is my opinion. If that's not good enough, you need to get rid of me and hire someone else."

"You could have heard a pin drop" is a bit of a cliche but in this case perhaps literally accurate. Subsequent discussions with wide-eyed colleagues revealed that they apparently expected her to turn into the Alien and rip my head off. After some seconds of silence she said something along the line of "Well, you better be right then." and moved on to the next topic.

After that we became best buddies. She sought out my opinion on matters that were not within my job description and covered a number of my bar bills. She told me how frustrated she was with my colleagues that they never seemed to have the guts to take a position and hold it in the face of her skepticism. She thought it was a difference between men and women, but I noted that the men working there didn't stand up to her either. Sometimes when you face a bully you just have to call them on it.

But if they're in a position of authority, remember that they may use it. Don't bet more than you can afford to lose.

Posted by: RonF at June 11, 2009 12:06 PM

Bravo, Ron. You nailed it. Every single word.

Posted by: Clarence Thomas, Lord of the Nazgul at June 11, 2009 12:10 PM


Thank you for the attribution. I am sure the person who passed the pearl to me whould be pleased that I not only remembered (and try to practice it), but that her words are being heard by many.

One thought on La Politesse. It works for civilized people with a similar value reference frame. For an individual living in a 7th Century cultural frame of reference, La Politesse is mere weakness or at best, a flaccid response showing that they have no will to make or defend their position.

For those people, La Politesse is best expressed as 5.56mm/7.62mm/9mm intervention in a small group setting; Mk82/84 attention getters for larger groups.

Along the same lines, but slightly off topic, this is why on my next adventure in the high country we will go out as 12 and come back as 12. No extras.

What a sad commentary on the state of affairs that we must overcome to protect the ones we love and the things we cherish.

Posted by: Kbob in Katy at June 11, 2009 01:14 PM

Well, I agree with you there. I think the perception of your being willing to back up your words with force is probably culturally dependent.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 11, 2009 01:22 PM

I was going to say that...what works in a democracy may not work in other parts of the world.

The Germans think Americans are giddy, selfish cowboys...until I stayed there for two years.
They respect authority figures, so standing up for yourself is not done. It has to be finesse, politeness and above all, the ability to listen.
Not just hear words, but hear what is being said; the nuance. Boq mentions that as well.

Understanding the 7th century means you have to listen to them too. Knowing your enemy means you know how to protect and acheive your objective.

Posted by: Cricket at June 11, 2009 01:43 PM

Knowing your enemy....

Actually Sun-Tzu tagged that one long ago. And still hold true. The problem is that we have no valid frame of reference for a 7th Century mindset, and they have been so thoroughly indoctrinated and inculcated as to believe that 20th and 21st Century weapons will only take them to a greater glory. In my humble opinion (IMHO), all we can do is accomodate them in their desire for that greater glory, for they will not hesitate in their attempts to eradicate any and all who do not believe in what they believe in.

I will not resort to cruelty, but neither will I hesitate to eliminate, quickly and efficiently, anything I perceive as a threat to my unit, my family and friends, my country, my way of life or myself (in that order too.)

Experience has shown me that what Churchill(?) said is true: "With a resonable man, I will reason." This implies that there is no reasoning with a zealot of any stipe or ilk, and their ultimate goal must determine the proper course of action.

Of course, as with all things I put on the web, it is IMHO and not the policy of my unit, the DoD, or the United States of America.



Posted by: Kbob in Katy at June 11, 2009 04:15 PM

The French. Heh.

I have worked for them for years, and I would like to know what this thing is that you call "La Politesse" is.
They are, on the whole (with notable exceptions), sarcstic, vindictive, self-centered and self-adsorbed in their own viewpoints and can be extremely parochial in their outlook.
My supreme leader was in my office a few months ago interrrogating me regarding an important company project, and did some very bizarre things to try to rattle me. Because he is a bizarre and obnoxious Frenchman, who was not raised with this "La Politesse" that you speak of.
I thought of homicide, but then considered the jail time, and changed my mind.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at June 11, 2009 04:28 PM

Heh :)

I believe there are some people who can't be reasoned with, but must be endured instead.

Posted by: Cassandra at June 11, 2009 05:21 PM

If you go nuclear on them without sufficient provocation, you'll make a lifelong enemy who will be waiting for the chance to slip a knife in your back.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but if you go nuclear on anybody, and I mean anybody, you have incinerated a lifelong enemy. Poof! A million souls that will never be waiting for the chance to slip a knife in your back.

Of course, then there's the idea of incinerating a million souls. Which, I admit, leaves me limp.

Posted by: Three Queens at June 11, 2009 05:21 PM

Great entry there - Blog Princess.

Posted by: Boquisucio at June 11, 2009 05:27 PM

Smart aleck :p

I was not referring to actual nukes, but metaphorical ones. I am not good enough with words to incinerate an opponent, and I assume that in the vast majority of confrontations, we don't literally wish the death of our opponents.

We just want to win the immediate confrontation at a cost that is acceptable.

Posted by: Pyhrrus of Epirus at June 11, 2009 05:32 PM

I'm good.

But I've never known acceptable.

Posted by: That Damned Old Man Again at June 11, 2009 06:49 PM

"But I've never known acceptable."
That's why I carry Gold Obama Coins! Accepted in all 57 states, major metropolitan community organization and voter registration offices, HUD Subsidized Mortgage Brokers, the Barney Frank Financial Oversight and Executive Compensation Committee aka K-street Floaters AGoGo and all the *finest nations, world wide.

*No longer accepted in China, Russia, Israel, and by Latin American Arms Merchants Inc.

European Union rates of exchange are posted daily at This Is NOT The Consensus Building, Ugly American Leader We Thought We Knew.

*with all the talk about fission and fusion, Timmy wonders if Lassie is still guarding THE RED BUTTON?*

Posted by: Timmy Turbo-Tax Geithner at June 11, 2009 08:33 PM

I know Jack Schitt.

Posted by: DL Sly at June 11, 2009 09:41 PM