The new rules of politeness in the Time of Coronavirus

These days, the Netherlands are a bit like the village of Asterix and Obelix: they have not entirely surrendered to the enemy, Julius Coronavirus, therefore we are only in a semi-lockdown. 

This means that everyone needs to work from home, that restaurants and bars are closed – but never fear, you can still get marijuana for takeaway from the coffee shops, and the population is free to walk around if they respect the rule of keeping 1.5m away from the next person. The Dutch, well… being Dutch,  have no issue in keeping their distance.

I live in a tiny village called Abcoude, ten minutes from Amsterdam. It is such a wild and dangerous place that it has two churches: one Protestant and one Catholic. Bring on the war of religious ideology around the assumption of Mary (did it happen or not?!) and a bickering battle over differences in interior design taste – while the Catholics take the “no such thing as too much gold leaf” approach; favoring lavish interiors that shows off the extravagant glory of their God, Protestant pragmatism dictates a simple interior that will not distract them from the pure message of their God. Minimalism before its time. Amen.

Except for these two churches, everything else in the village is small. No, not just small – tiny. The red brick houses, the Main Street that can hardly accommodate two cars side-by-side and the shops. Everything was built in the XIXth century, back when the Dutch were renowned for their shortness. One century later, and now the tallest people in the world need to try to fit in these miniature houses and villages. (The gods must be laughing at their evil joke…)

Sooooo tiny…. Image from Gerrit

During this wonderful time of coronavirus, I am having fun observing the people that populate my village. Let’s be honest, everyone you could meet today is a potential murderer; with one breath they can take your life away. If they do, I want to remember who did it – although ironically I am perhaps the biggest threat with my partner being a doctor.

Anyways, I have categorized these free-range Dutchies as follows:
– There is the Lycra gang comprised of middle-aged men cycling their way through the vast, boring flatness of their country, clad head-to-toe in thin clingy fabric that shows off every single contour of their bodies. Don’t underestimate the power of the law of gravity -it makes some things way too visible for it to be decent, mate! ;
– There are the suicidals, or the optimistics as Emil Cioran, the Franco-Romanian philosopher would call them. He indeed once beautifully wrote: “only the optimistics commits suicide .” This category sums up everyone 70 years or older, tottering and strolling around in  a bid to showcase their subconscious desires for an expedited death. 
– Then there are the kids loving life without school, riding their scooters like drunken
sailors on Top Gear and respecting the social distancing rules as they flip the bird to everyone else from 1.5 meters away.
– And then there is my neighbor. I cannot stand my neighbor. She is this beautiful young mother of three adorable children. Being an aesthete, this is not the reason why I dislike her. I cannot stand her because she is so bloody polite. We are in a lockdown. How can one remain polite? 

Yesterday, I saw her walking towards me. And as it is only polite to do in these comical times, I shamelessly crossed to the other side of the pavement, held my breath like I do with everybody I meet, and greeted her with pursed lips. She smiled at me and waved in a friendly manner. I did not respond back. And then I realised, this lockdown is making all of us impolite. Not only me. 


Don’t be impolite, be British!

In three weeks, this lockdown has completely changed the way we view politeness. We used to shake hands when we met people. Now this gesture could be construed as attempted murder. 
We used to be taught that if someone is talking  to you, you should come closer. Now, if someone speaks to you, you need to keep even more distance because that could jolly well be the last conversation either one of you has.
And the best of all, these days it is a sign of education or politeness – I would even say, a sign of savoir vivre – to not see anyone, to be in self-isolation.
Most of our western societal rules of politeness have been eradicated by the virus; the bienséance has departed the room and handed over the microphone to hand sanitizers; and now it is completely acceptable to conduct meetings from our living rooms with no pants on and our children on our laps – what?! 

The other day, I was having a conference call with some new clients. My daughter was with me, as she always is these days, waving hello to the other people in the call. She was being  perfect…until she wasn’t anymore.
Suddenly, out of nowhere in the middle of the conversation, she started screaming, crying. Consequently, I abruptly turned off the camera and muted myself with no apologies and no transition, leaving my poor colleague to take over leading the conversation. I tried to continue listening in while I changed her diaper, but it was impossible. 

If this would have happened in “real” life, I am sure we would have lost our clients and I would have gotten fired. And rightfully so! On a side note, I do not know where my one year old daughter gets her education from, but she should definitely be banned from attending business meetings – lockdown or no lockdown. 

We human beings have spent years trying to integrate all these norms of politeness – and in a matter of weeks we have dismissed them all with a wave of the (freshly-sanitised) hand as rude, and replaced them with sparkly-clean new norms.
I had always thought that politeness was essential to create a sort of harmony between human beings. Similar to how Spinoza viewed religion: as a way for people to get along by creating this common fear of God. However, if the rules of politeness are so easily broken and transformed, are they then essential to society?    

What is politeness?

It is not because politeness evolves; that it could differ so largely across cultures and social backgrounds, that renders politeness unimportant. Andre Comte-Sponville, one of the rare philosophers interested in the subject, sums politeness up perfectly:  “it is insufficient in an adult and necessary in a child.”
What he means is that politeness is a necessary foundation in children’s education; the cake base in knowing how to behave in society and having “a chance in becoming virtuous”. In other words, if children learn how to imitate having high moral standards, perhaps they will be highly moral once they are adults. 

For the philosopher, the whole concept of being polite is akin to pretending. Pretending to care (how are you?), pretending to be respectful (beg your pardon, excuse-me), pretending to have compassion (I am sorry) and pretending to humble oneself (it is nothing). Politeness does not signify that you are moral or have virtues; politeness is the act of pretending that you are virtuous. And if you pretend hard enough, you might become it.

And what Comte-Sponville means when he says “it is insufficientin an adult” is that once we are adults, most of us do not have high morals. We even have a French expression stating “too polite to be honest”.And now it makes sense why I dislike my neighbor so much! It is her insincerity. I can feel it radiating from the 3 meters of distance that I hastily inserted between the two of us. She pretends to be nice, to like me. But she does not! All of this is fake. 

Having said that, I wonder who is the most moral person in this situation?
Is it me, who is being honest; refusing hypocrisy, yet consequently being impolite and perhaps putting her in an uneasy situation with my bulldog face? 
Or on the contrary, is she perhaps the most virtuous of the two of us, with her self-discipline of sticking to her values and being polite to everyone, even to that Sacre bleu of a French neighbor? 
And yet, viruses know nothing of virtuousness. At least I can’t infect people with my impoliteness.

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