Stop Being Polite

I was in college when the first Real World by MTV crashed into our living rooms.  What happens “. . . when people stop being polite and start getting real?” the show asked.

Interesting question . . . only I don’t think they ever answered it. In thirty-two (and counting) seasons, have we seen a whole lot of “real?”

Drama. Yes. But, real?

What’s Wrong With Being Polite?

My mother (and probably yours, too) would argue, nothing whatsoever is wrong with being polite. Being polite isn’t hard. It’s often the first thing we teach our children: say please and thank you, don’t fart in public, hold doors open for people. Clearly, if there are only two choices between being rude or being polite, go with the latter.

But, what if being polite gets in the way of empathy, compassion, and joy? What if politeness is the costume we wear when we either don’t know–or don’t know how to trust–our true selves? Politeness might have kept me from a profound moment of human connection.

But Luckily, Elizabeth Gilbert Intervened.

Elizabeth Gilbert asks the question, “What are you excited about?”

Gilbert is the author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and the host of a podcast called Magic Lessons where she endeavors to unleash the creative potential in all of us. One of the core tenets of her philosophy is the necessity of remaining mentally awake to inspiration and beauty all around us. But, since she’s also a human being, she struggles with the energy needed to be “on” all the time.

All of us find ourselves switching to auto-pilot on a daily basis, and Liz (I’ve decided we’re on a first name basis) is no exception. During her book tour, she became aware of her auto-pilot setting and gave herself a challenge. She opted out of just being polite, deciding real was better. She ditched the standard “get to know you” questions and asked this instead:

“What are You Most Excited About?”

I asked my cab driver this question after ten minutes in his taxi on the way to the airport. I’d already asked him a few questions about how long he’d been driving a cab and why he liked it. But, I wasn’t satisfied. Small talk isn’t real. I decided to try Liz’s question.

“So, what are you most excited about?” I asked as we drove along the 405 freeway in Irvine, California. The driver didn’t hesitate. “You know, I’m a man that believes in the afterlife,” he said. “And I’ve had enough tragedy in my life to know that our lives are like a breath of air on a cold morning–there and then not, you know?”

I did.

“My sister got cancer, my wife got cancer, my brother committed suicide. . . . and I just know that I’ve got my calling on earth and then my home with Him in heaven. And,” he continued, “I’ve become aware, pretty recently, that things, these vices of being a human . . . like gambling for instance, they aren’t worth it.”

“Sounds like you have some experience with that.” My heart raced. Had I gone too far? But he’d offered an invitation, a hand outstetched, and I didn’t want to be afraid to accept. I wasn’t sure if he’d talk more about his faith or gambling, or neither.

“Yeah. I do. I’ve been a gambler for years. Not the worst kind, but bad enough. But I decided that’s enough of that. I decided to give back. Tonight’s the second board of directors’ meeting for a non-profit I started.”

“Wow!” I said, “That’s awesome. What is it? What does it do?”

A potter at work, shaping clay. Taking what was, and building something new.

“It’s called Potter’s Work, and we want to help the homeless. You know, right over there,” he points to the overpass, “seven hundred people live. And they need help. They need a leg up, not people that come and bulldoze their bikes and throw out their sleeping bags. So, I’m doing something because I think I can help.”

At this Point, I have to Take a Deep Breath.

Beauty isn’t always found in what we see with our eyes.

Whenever my eyes catch something beautiful, a color-saturated sunset, or a field filled with white flowers around a bend in the road, I take a deep breath; as if by filling my lungs at that moment, I can somehow hold on to the beauty longer. Though all I saw around me at that moment were SUVs and concrete, the driver’s story made me take that same deep breath.

“Do you have a website?” I asked him. “I’d love to check it out.”

“Sure!” he reached towards his bag, finds the card and passes it back to me.

I hold it like a gift.

Seconds later, he’s opening my door and helping me out of the cab with my luggage.

“Thanks so much for the ride,” I said. “What’s your name?” I reach out my hand to him. “I’m Angela.”

“Steve,” he replied. “You’ve got my card now. Do you come this way often? Just give me a call.”

We’re both smiling. His hand was warm and soft. “I sure will, Steve. Wonderful to meet you.”

“You, too.”

Soon, I’ve disappeared behind the glass sliding doors, and Steve’s cab pulled away from the curb. What happens when strangers stop being polite, and start getting real?


This post was previously published on You are Awesome and is republished here with permission from the author.


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Photo credit: Angela Noel