DEAR MISS MANNERS: When a person is facing someone behaving badly, your advice is invariably to politely/quietly distance yourself from that person. This is certainly excellent for avoiding a confrontation, but also does very little to actually improve the situation in the future.
As a society, we enforce good manners socially (and very rarely legally), but if we constantly avoid confrontation, how can that enforcement actually work?
Avoidance/mild comments do send a message, but many times these behaviors are not practical — nor, frankly, are they obvious enough (without being rude) to actually influence poor behavior.
I am not asking permission to be rude or unnecessarily confrontational, but there must be some middle ground. How do we successfully operate in that middle ground without unintentionally being rude?
GENTLE READER: No, no, Miss Manners must first correct your premise. She cannot even imagine a life in which there are no confrontations. It would have to be either unbelievably conflict-free, or hopelessly amoral and spineless.
The key questions about confrontations are “why” and “how.”
One problem, as you realize, is how to stand up forcefully for oneself or one’s principles without stooping to rudeness. But there is also an intensely practical aspect: Does the form of confrontation serve the purpose? Will it change bad behavior?
In some cases — as, for example, when citizens strive for a systemic change — it takes perseverance and fortitude. In others — such as dealing with one’s bigoted old uncle — the wiser course may be to refrain from prodding him by keeping off the offensive subjects. And scolding strangers in the street just makes them act worse.
In none of these situations does rudeness lead to success. That is why official arenas handling conflict — courts, legislatures, sports — have strict etiquette rules so that both sides are supposed to restrain from unproductive antagonisms.
Protesters win adherents by cultivating empathy, not by attacking potential supporters. Individuals are not open to instruction from people who do not show them some basic respect.
Typically, when Miss Manners advises avoiding confrontation, it is in situations where there is nothing to be gained — and possibly much to lose, as these often escalate to fights and possibly violence. Sometimes it is an associate with whom a conflict would be unproductive as well as disruptive. Nowadays, the most common instance is the person who wants to chastise a stranger for not wearing a mask, but whose presence is exactly what must be avoided.
Miss Manners’ advice is not to be understood as a failure to defend oneself or to stand up for what is right. While it is meant to discourage unnecessary abrasiveness in everyday life, it is also meant to discourage wasting emotion counterproductively. And letting offensive or unsafe people get in your face.
Yet she thoroughly understands the satisfaction of registering objections to misbehavior. That is why she is happy to supply polite ways of doing so: responding to unwarranted criticism with “I’m glad you like it,” and to nosiness with “Thank you for your interest in my private business.” These can provide dignified withdrawal from what are obviously losing battles.
Inevitably, some Gentle Reader will then denounce these approaches as “passive-aggressive.” Not really; the point is clearly made. And we could all use a little less aggressive-aggressive.”