Etiquette and speaking up

I had the occasion, over the summer, to make some new friends, and to observe myself doing so.  At such moments, I try to present myself more or less unedited. Why spend time together if you can't be yourself with someone?

Conventional etiquette, social rules promoted by my proper Midwestern American mother, dictated avoidance of controversy at the table or other social gatherings—but I wanted to talk about the issues and changes that have jolted us, the storms both political and physical. How can one chat only about light topics (movies, sports, the summer festivals) while our local stadium filled with refugees who cross the Canadian border daily? So I did not.

That's not to say I jumped off the high board, and I do not want to rile my hosts. Sometimes I test the waters, noting, for example, that Bob Dylan, whom we saw in concert in July, chose to croon mostly '40s pop standards until his biting encore, "Blowing in the Wind".

Because I'm a dual US and Canadian citizen, persons I barely know ask me to parse the psyche of the American voter, especially those who ardently support Donald Trump. So I will speak, without expecting agreement.

I find facts an ally. Sometimes I've had to listen more than speak, and have had moments of dislocation. When a friend praised the "refreshing openness" of the US President, I asked this committed environmentalist what he thought of that administration's revoked legislation or reduced enforcement regarding environmental issues.

I find, too, that others want to talk about the difficult, the messy, the incomprehensible. When hosts, signalling they were not afraid of substance, wondered what their guests thought about the removal of a plaque that commemorated Jefferson Davis from a downtown Montréal site, I was grateful.

"Please, Bill," my mother would beg, "don't get into politics tonight." And I do remember some shouting. She was happy to have my father's intelligence (edified by his beloved Chicago Tribune) aimed against certain interests; she just didn't want it to obscure the glories of her roast beef and cherry pie.

My friend Beth, author of the beautifully-written blog the cassandra pages, wrote a post on speaking out, showing up, and replacing handwringing with action. I could not say it better.

Because present-day Nazis and related groups claim their space, stating that they have substantial support from elected officials, I speak. I also try to listen, respect difference, and keep my critical thinking skills sharp. (My antennae go up when I hear, in either official language, "ces gens là"; "those people".)

I have learned how fear, scarcity and insularity affect tolerance. How belief systems implanted early in life may be re-examined, and how much courage it takes for someone to say, "I've changed my mind" or even "I didn't know about that."

Sometimes there's a cost. The fiancée of a family friend decided she'd had enough of biting her tongue during family visits and after years of silence, decided to take her stand. After a rocky visit, she said, "My mother and father are open enough to listen, but my brother won't. I don't hope to change their minds, but I want to be heard."

Pass the peas, and pass the word: the etiquette is abridged, Mom. At the table, I will still eat with my mouth closed, but I will also open it to talk about these times.


Jonz said…
It's always been a delicate balance, especially in the US where people are so divided and stovepiped into their own spaces. I agree though, this is a tipping point and it's important to speak out and also to listen. Good post!
Madame Là-bas said…
My youngest brother and I have enjoyed long walks together this summer. We have discussed and debated many different topics. Both of us have remarked about how infrequently there is an interesting or intelligent discussion among friends or relatives. I think that we should feel free to openly express opinions (supported by facts) on "hot" topics (immigration, politics, racism....) in a social setting as long as we are sensitive to the feelings o others.
Duchesse said…
Jonz: You would know, as you spend so much more time in the Us than I do! Thanks.

Mme: I think the ability to hold a discussion that contains multiple perspectives takes a high level of skill and sometimes iron resolve not to become emotionally reactive. That's probably why that classic etiquette rule exists, to keep things convivial. The risk then is as you suggested, bland avoidance.
Jane said…
Oh, Wow! Small world! My American kid is the one responsible for the removal of the Jefferson Davis plaque on the Hudson Bay building. Did you see/hear him on TV and radio? He majored in International Development and Political Science at McGill.
Jane said…
I am a business person and do not find it wise to discuss politics. I also do not suffer fools. If someone is dumb enough to bring up politics first I will speak my mind. Don't you find the older one gets the less patience one has for nonsense?
Frugal Scholar said…
Thank you, Duchesse, for returning to give us food for thought (this post) and food for the soul (your beautiful pearls). I have a different view than most, it seems, on your post today. I am a very blue person in a very red state. I have been rather seriously dispirited since the election and can hardly make eye contact with my neighbors (it's different with students--my job/vocation is to teach and, as it happens, much of what I teach encourages the development of empathy).

I don't see how I could be friends with people who have a world view so entirely opposed to my own. New Orleans across the lake from me, is a blue island in the midst of a red state. I was telling an acquaintance of one of my children about my feelings. She said "Of course! You live in a toxic environment." That is exactly how I feel.

A few more anecdotes: One of my students last year was from the Netherlands. His father worked for an oil company in Baton Rouge. He was ranting about the immigrants who have "ruined" his home country. To which I said mildly, "Aren't you an immigrant?" I had an interesting/awkward encounter with an elegant gentleman in Riga. He bumped into me, asked me where I was from...and then (I will fill in the details if we ever meet up again). In Stockholm, I was met with a stare of horror when I said I was American. Difficult times.
Duchesse said…
Jane: Yes, what a coincidence. I am pretty sure i heard him on the radio.

In a long business career, I was discreet about expressing political points of view to clients, but far more open with with colleagues, especially when political viewpoints about certain laws (e.g., employment opportunity, maternity/parental leave, immigration) affected the workplace.

Frugal: We could spend hours talking and I hope we have the chance! One of my favourite women friends is flagrantly racist, especially toward immigrants from one particular region. I tell her what I think, and my sons told her they were appalled. She is unlikely to revise her position, but if she talks only with those who support her, there is no chance. I'm not suggesting you sign up for that, though.
Beth said…
Thank you, Duchesse, for what you've written here and for your kind words and link. I've already said what I think, and couldn't agree with you more.
It is so highly charged these days that more and more I find myself biting my tongue - which is not like me at all! My father always encouraged discussions - and arguments at the dinner table (I think my mother would have liked a bit more peace & quiet) - he would often say that I'd say Black was Red just for the sake of a good argument!
One problem now a days seems to be that so many see things in terms of black & white - while I often see many shades of grey. I don't think of myself as wishy washy - it's that I truly do see many points of view.
Without getting into specific examples, I worry about the tendency towards revisionist history and taking things out of historical context - perhaps because I am a history major, I fear trying to cover up and excise the past makes us vulnerable to those wrongs being repeated.
I am an immigrant myself so I do sympathize with those seeking a better life - and the need to aid refugees in dire straights. goes without question But I also must note that many of those now featured on the evening news are financial migrants rather than refugees. I would say that my family was also financial migrants but - we played by the rules - applied, went through the proper channels and then waited for our turn. I don't think it's wrong to expect others to play by those same rules.
The polarization in the US is truly frightening - and I do applaud those who are standing up to those who would dismantle so many of the laws and social institutions that have been in place to protect those less fortunate or those laws that protect the rights of women and minorities. But I also thinks it's too easy to stereotype those in the "Red States" as merely ignorant racists and right wing "crazies". I've read a lot of interviews with them and in many cases they say that they voted for Trump because they felt ignored and left out by previous administrations - not out of any specific love for him. In this case the fault lies with the Democrats who failed to engage them and give them hope for the future.
I am looking more and more at making small contributions these days - helping out a neighbour, volunteering, spending time with friends - I just find the bigger picture too exhausting and daunting. That probably makes me a bit of a coward but it's all I feel capable of at the moment.
Very difficult times.
LauraH said…
Debates/intense discussions/arguments are not my strong point, I tend to get tied into knots and just stop. I admire your willingness to step into that mine field.

As with Rob Ford here in Toronto, I've tried to understand how people can support Donald Trump but have to admit I just don't get it. I've never found a political party or leader that I agree with 100% so I assume others feel the same and give qualified support. But I boggle at supporting someone, anyone, who exhibits an ongoing pattern of lying, irrational behaviour and a hyper-inflated sense of self importance. Scary times indeed when this appeals to so many.

How wonderful to be making new friends. You encourage me as always:-)
Duchesse said…
Margie from Toronto: Social media tends to leach out nuance and complex analyses; we lose the grey. When I read your comment, I thought of Molly Ivins, who said "The thing about democracy, beloveds, is that is is not neat, orderly or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion."

LauraH: Discussion is easier for some than others; I too do not go looking for an argument. The example I gave of my friend (who was at my house for dinner when he said that), is a good example. I did not want him to be uncomfortable, but to be silent would be support for actions that disturb me greatly.
Leslie M said…
This is such a volatile time in our country, but for African Americans and Hispanic Americans, among others, it is status quo. The anti-those people feel empowered right now, but I fear we will return to dog whistle politics after this administration ends. Not as obvious, but just as oppressive. It isn't just the US. Anti-immigrant policies, laws and sentiment are seen all around the world. I have had conversations with German travelers who state that Angela Merkel may not be their choice politically to lead Germany, but they had nothing but pride for her decision to take in immigrants. Someone had to be a leader. Justin Trudeau, admirably, has also publically stated that Canada will welcome Muslim immigrants whom the US wants to ban.

But, I live in a bubble in Seattle; very blue city in a purple state. To speak to someone with a different POV I must talk to my brothers. One, so extreme that I cannot discuss politics with him anymore, told me that he thinks Democrats are worse than ISIS. I have another brother, in Texas, who has agreed to discuss issues, based on facts, to explain why an issue resonates or irritates. The goal is to learn from each other, not destroy each other. It's going to be a long 3 more years.
Melissa said…
I think that in these times it is important to speak and have open conversations with ALL sides. There is a lot of fear and misinformation out there and when people are afraid they start to become less open and welcoming. Unfortunately, there are those who won't listen to their fears, won't address them, won't talk to them, and even worse shut them down and call them by many names such as bigot, racist, or Clinton's disgraceful descriptor of 'The Deplorables"!!! By talking to those whose views you don't understand or question, there is an opportunity for both sides to learn and understand. Views can be changed or modified with better dialogue and fears addressed. When people are heard then they are less likely to lash out in frustration. In my country (Australia) it is becoming rather 1984 where we are not able to have a non-PC view. The woman who was our Human rights commissioner was bemoaning that we are still able to say what we like in our own homes! If she had her way we would have our homes monitored for speech that wasn't Big Brother approved!
The more that I get out and talk to people from all sides, the more informed my opinion becomes. I can see validity in most arguments, an issue that raises passion is rarely black or white, but more Yin and Yang, in other words, there is a bit of truth in both arguments.
I have changed my views due on various issues to better understanding through discussions, and I have also gained more knowledge and empathy due to these discussions.
I have come to understand that freedom of speech and the ability to have open dialogue is one of the most important rights of a truly free society.
I wrote a very long, detailed comment and it disappeared. Later.
Duchesse said…
Leslie Milligan: Your situation is painful but not uncommon. I have some family members to whom I give wide berth.

Melissa Hebbard: Clinton has apologized for calling half of Trump's supporters that. Her speech in which she used that label is far more nuanced and revealing; she also acknowledges the faction of Trump supporters who "feel that the government has let them down... that nobody cares about them." (Source:

Like Mitt Romney's reference to "47% of the population dependent on the government" , the application of a negative label to a group can work against a candidate.

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