The Price of Politeness

PoliteThere’s a fine line between being polite and being a pushover, and it’s a line that I’ve danced along for the majority of my life. Chaulk it up to a consequence of my incredible awkwardness, but speaking up for myself in person has always been more than just a little bit challenge. Like, a whole lot more. 

It wasn’t until I watched the most recent episode of The Big Bang Theory that I realized this struggle between polite and awkward is very real. At the beginning of the episode, Sheldon recalls, “You know, once I ordered an Uber by accident. I just got in it and went somewhere.” Granted, I have yet to use the Uber app, but this snafu is striking similar to some too-recent moments when my politeness cost me. Thankfully, I’m finally learning how to do something about it. 

You May Have Got Me for Lunch…

At the beginning of the school year, a coworker and I were working on a project together before an evening event. She asked me if I was interested in ordering dinner, and I quickly said yes. Saving money be damned when I’m crossing over into hangry territory. Somehow, I ended up picking up the food without getting repaid. Ever. Sure, there were a few polite gestures when I returned with the meal and a few more promises of cash the following day, but I knew almost immediately that that money was as good as gone. I could have spoken up in the days following, but I was never quite sure what to say.* Plus, my dad always cautioned me not to foot the bill on the promise of a shared check if I wasn’t willing to cover the whole cost. In this case, the extra $7 probably wasn’t worth jeopardizing an-otherwise-wonderful work relationship.

This past week, I picked up treats for an after-school celebration of a few dozen students who participated in a scholastic competition.** The night before, three other teachers and I were emailing back and forth in terms of permission slips received, food allergies, and whatnot. One teacher offered to pick up juice boxes and napkins. I offered to grab snack bars and cookies. Another coworker chimed in that since I was already heading to the store, I should scoop up everything and we’d just split the cost four ways. My dad’s advice clanged in my head, but the email wasn’t a question. It was a blanket statement. So I obliged. Because I’m incredibly polite gullible spineless. Two of my coworkers repaid me on the spot. The final holdout – the person who suggested the errand in the first place – originally asked if I would prefer cash or a gift card. At this point, I’d gladly accept either.

…But It’s My House

Those instances of being overly polite at work won’t break the bank. They’re annoyances. They’re nuisances. They’re tiny little insults that I can mostly overlook. Mostly.

But just recently, we started renovating our second bathroom, and that’s when I could definitely see the dollar signs flying out the window when it came to being too nice. We had used this contractor and his crew for two other projects, including the upstairs guest bathroom that makes me head-over-heels happy whenever I look at it now, so we thought we knew what to expect. After all, this renovation was taking place a mere month after the last.

The first sign that things were amiss was when we came home to find the lights in our guest bathroom weren’t working. Neither was the new bathroom fan. Then, we couldn’t turn on our TV in the master bedroom. It turns out that two of the workers tried to move the can lights before the electrician came, never turned off the power, crossed the wires, and wreaked all sorts of havoc on everything connected to that circuit.

I mustered up the courage to put Mr. P up to the job of calling the contractor, who happens to be vacationing in Florida. He was deeply apologetic over the phone, yelled at his workers in a separate call, and promised to pay for a new motor or a new fan, whatever was necessary. I felt a little bit guilty, but mostly I felt pretty satisfied that things would be made right.  I felt like I was maturing, growing a backbone. 

Imagine my surprise the following day when the same workers asked Mr. P and I where we purchased the fan. After naming the big box store, they told us that they were going out to pick up some materials and would let said store know that they sold us a faulty fan. They’d be back with a replacement in no time. Mouth hanging open, I watched them head down the driveway and contemplated changing the locks before they came back.

Fast forward to yesterday. Mr. P and I were both off work, but neither of us intended to babysit the workers all day. When we both came back from running separate errands, I noticed it felt unusually drafty in our house. I had turned the thermostat down to 65 since they said they would be opening and closing the door on occasion. What they didn’t tell us was they actually planned to leave the door between our house and our garage open all day to keep their tools in working order.

It was a balmy 23 degrees without the windchill outside, and our furnace was chugging along mightily to compensate. Refusing to stand for this wastefulness, I meekly inquired about the kerosene heater that the contractor told me his crew was equipped with. After assuring me that they had no idea what I was talking about and had no heater in their possession, they offered to cut all of the ceramic tile in our house for the next few days instead. In an effort to stave off the head spinning and fire breathing that he could sense was about to happen, Mr. P fled to the nearest home improvement store to purchase a heater, while I punched in the number for the contractor.

In our three years of home ownership, I’m given to understand that a certain degree of things going a little sideways is to be expected. However, this current project has underscored the fact that it’s time for me to learn how to be a little less polite. After promptly reaching out to the general contractor, we received repeated assurances that all would be handled. I’m not sure when or how this particular story will end, but I can tell you that finding my voice hasn’t been a bad thing. In fact, I might just speak up about that lunch. Maybe.

* “What the heck? How can you stand owing people money? It practically gives me hives to be indebted to anyone” seemed a little overbearing.

**I refuse to accept the fact that pizza parties are only for athletes. My uncoordinated self has to believe otherwise.

So Tell Me…Has being polite ever cost you? Are you ever afraid to speak up?


The Price of Politeness

20 thoughts on “The Price of Politeness

  1. Shannon says:

    I would probably confuse your politeness for having the patience of a saint… I’m not sure I could handle someone saying a product was defective when they obviously messed up…

    To be fair, I haven’t had to actually deal with contractors in my house yet. So maybe I’ll end up being too polite. Who knows?

    1. That’s really gracious of you to say, Shannon. I didn’t know how to stop them in the moment (tackle them? yell?), but I did work it out. Actually, the store kind of did it for me. What they failed to ask was whether or not we special ordered the fan. So they couldn’t return it. Now, the contractor is working it out. It sounds like the contractor wanted the money for the fan to come out of their pay, so they were trying to save themselves some money. Such a mess! And the craziest part is the fan was only like $60!

  2. The celebration planning with the co-workers is really a tough one. I can’t even think of a good response to the statement/demand that you pick up everything. Maybe, “I don’t have enough cash. You’ll need to get that.” ? Then if she ‘suggested’ putting it on a credit card “We don’t use credit cards.”?

    The situation with the fan, and lying to the store to replace it would bug me too. I’d think the general contractor would rather eat the cost for a new one, than risk his relationship with the store. Keep us posted on the continuing saga!

  3. I have the exact opposite problem. I feel comfortable with confrontation and id rather bring something up than let it slide by. This leads to people thinking I’m aggressive or bitchy though, so it’s not always a grass is greener thing.
    I think that construction situation sounds ridiculous! They are really being unprofessional about it.

    1. I definitely need to take a page from your book, Kara. I suppose the ideal is a balance. The construction thing is 100% the cliche “when the cat is away, the mice will play”. I received a really thorough voicemail on my lunch break assuring me that everything was addressed. We’ll see when I get home!

  4. Oh my – I can completely relate to this. I have always been the person that would never send back any food item or dish at a restaurant, because I knew it was not their fault & it made me feel impolite. Also, I used to always hold off on correcting people when they would call me by a different name (I get called Melissa instead of Alyssa more often than you would think)! But there is a fine line between taking ownership of your time, your money, your energy, etc. when it comes to having a backbone and being polite. When people ask favors (and make you take on more errands/don’t pay you back), it’s typically because they’re guarding those resources as well. I am starting to learn that more! I need to take care of myself, too. 🙂

    1. Exactly! And I’m starting to realize that while it may stand out to me as confrontational, to someone like our contractor, it probably doesn’t stand out as anything out of the ordinary.

  5. Oh man, I was cringing as I read today’s post. I’m 100% guilty of the same and it’s embarrassing at times. Here’s to making a change! Next time something comes up, I promise to myself to worry less about being polite and more about standing up for myself!

  6. I guess I’ve been lucky. I’ve never had to pursue someone for money. Maybe I’ve just been lucky not to be the one to pay in the first place. Like you, I’m terrible about mentioning money to friends, so I definitely get it.

    But if I’m paying someone, I’m a lot less meek. Still, a little iffy, but I’m much more likely to stand up for myself if I’m paying for a service that isn’t going well.

    I hope you made sure the contractor knows that he’s paying for the heater. They’re welcome to take it with them, but since they didn’t have the proper equipment and were costing you money, I’d say the heater isn’t coming out of your pocket.

    1. Absolutely! The heater situation and the fan situation are both being sorted out. As far as luck goes, you probably have a better approach than me. I’m not sure luck has anything to do with it 😉

  7. Being too polite has definitely cost me money, particularly with family members. Sometimes it’s money they were supposed to chip in for a gift. Once it was an inheritance they weren’t entitled to but I gave them a share anyway (and they still complained!). Usually I just decide it’s not worth arguing over. But with a contractor or something like that, I need to become a bit more assertive.

  8. I can’t stand owing people money either. And, like you, I find it very difficult to remind people that they owe me. Sometimes I think there really is a sort of cultural understanding (albeit among only a subset of the population) that there’s no need to really worry about these things because everything will eventually work itself out through, like, karma. (But it won’t!)

    I am also TOTALLY with you on the niceness thing. I also think there is a large gender component here — not to take a victim stance or whatever, but just to acknowledge it. In any case, it’s definitely something that I’m working on. But it’s tough.

    I really hope everything gets sorted out with the contractor!

  9. Bravo for speaking up! I am probably a bit less constrained in terms of confronting people, but I often find that *not* speaking up just upsets me more. So even though it’s sometimes tough to muster up the will to say something, I’ve concluded that I usually feel better when I do, which is about a hundred thousand times better than silently seething or carrying a grudge. So keep going — you’re on the right path! I promise it gets easier. 🙂

  10. Because of the differences between our personalities, I am always the bad cop in this house. I am always the one who says “no” to people, refuses to let people get extra money from us, and negotiates all terms when we deal with people or businesses. I think I am just naturally a big B because it doesn’t really bother me.

  11. Politeness works best when everyone is considerate. And, as a southern girl, I was always taught to use my manners (even as a weapon, if necessary). I’m just not very good at aggressively polite…mine always comes out as shrill. Those who’ve mastered it I admire. My grandmother could get her way and what she wanted without ever being seen as anything but ladylike. I do think, though, she was aided by a society where manners were valued and people were more cognizant of what others thought of their behavior.

  12. When I started out blogging, I had to find ways to learn to look past it being politeness and seeing the objective view: I paid for a service. Did you render it? If not, we have to talk.

    After several years of training, you know what I’ve realized? I’m ok with people thinking I’m aggressive or a jerk or a bitch. Go on, think ALL the thoughts you want and I dare you to say it out loud to me while I’m already making your mangy butt fix whatever you screwed up in the first place. That’s right, I’m preemptively belligerent too!

    It turns out that once I shed my “flight” reaction from childhood and young adulthood, it left me with “fight.” And that’s no bad thing at all because as PiC likes to say: “I’m a complainer, she’s a doer. If I complain or whine about someone doing me wrong, she gets up and makes someone fix it!” Over the years, though, his congratulations have also led him to pick up a lesson or two and he’ll come home bragging about how he actually made someone fix their errors. I’m proud 😀

    Even though my approach does not always start off aggressively, in my heart I know I WILL get satisfaction and it’s up the other party how much pain they want to suffer before paying up so I am much more confident. It’s on them whether they want this to get rude, it’s not on me because I will start off quite politely.

    As a dear friend pointed out, only the closest and toughest friends have the guts to go toe to toe with me. That’s right! 😉

  13. Wow. You were really taken for a ride. Good for you if you wish to change. It’s important to be a little assertive or people will be willing to trample on you.

    I’ve seen this happen lots of times at the grocery store. Someone will come up and try to skip ahead in line at the cashier’s table. Before, I would let them go ahead but now I smile and say, ‘Wait your turn please.’ I don’t know why people don’t follow general etiquette.

  14. Oh, I feel your pain. It is a tough balance. There were the other kids in school who always wanted to “borrow” a piece of gum. Um, no thanks, I don’t want it back. But when it happened every day and I had to finance their treats as well as mine, it was simpler to just not bring any at all.
    Now, it depends on the situation. Restaurant celebrations get tricky when I don’t know everyone in the group well. They each have several drinks, appetizers, and dessert when I only order a simple meal, then they tell the server to split the bill evenly. It stinks, but it’s probably better to go along and avoid similar situations in the future than to cause a ruckus at the time.
    When possible, though, I’ll ask the server for separate checks ahead of time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *