I pulled up behind the parked sport utility vehicle and texted my daughter. She and a friend were doing community service, helping special needs children with a yoga class at a local studio. They’d finished early, and I was caught in traffic. Fortunately, her friend’s father got there early, and when I arrived my daughter jumped out of his car and into mine. As she buckled her seatbelt, I told her to make sure to thank her friend’s father for waiting with her.
“I will,” she said. “I told him he didn’t have to wait, but he insisted.”
I looked around the dark parking lot. It was half empty. There were no other people in sight.
“Why would you tell him that?” I shook my head. “I would never want you waiting out here alone.”
She shrugged. “I was trying to be polite.”
I told her there are more important things than being polite. But later, thinking about our exchange, I was acutely aware that this is not always the message we send our children, especially our daughters who are often conditioned to please others ahead of themselves, whatever the cost.
When I was a little younger than my daughter, maybe thirteen or fourteen, I was home alone in the middle of the day. There was a new house being built across the street and one of the workers rang our doorbell. Though my parents had instructed me about such things, I opened the door. The man standing there was large and looked to be around fifty years old. He asked if he could use our bathroom. I hesitated, but I didn’t want to be rude. I said yes. I led him down the hall to the guest bathroom and then, realizing the potential gravity of the situation, locked myself in my parents’ bedroom and called a friend. I told her to stay on the line with me, “just in case.”
When the man finished, he yelled, “Miss?” I called out that I was on the phone and he should show himself out. It’s possible he just needed to use the bathroom. It’s also possible he didn’t, and by locking myself in the bedroom I’d saved myself from harm.
It’s normal to want to teach our children to be polite. This is true in western cultures and also in many Muslim cultures where politeness is an elevated and beautiful community virtue. When someone offers something or asks us for something, it is a kind thing to say yes. We want others to feel good. We also want to be liked. Unfortunately, sometimes this becomes the primary goal. And while in many social interactions being polite is a good thing, this is not always the case.
In the well-publicized rape trial of a St. Paul’s School student, pursuant to which the defendant was convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault, the fifteen-year-old victim described her resistance at the time of the assault. Even while saying no, she said she didn’t want to cause conflict and that she was trying to be as “polite” as possible. As parents, as human beings, that impulse should shock us. And yet if we are honest about the people-pleasing culture within which our girls often grow up, there is something about her words that rings heartbreakingly true.
We can and should teach our children to have good manners. To say please and thank you, to be kind to the elderly and the marginalized, to eat their grandmother’s baking even if they don’t love it. But we must also teach them about the primacy of their safety, and to trust their instincts. We must allow them say no and make sure they understand that it should be respected. We must make it abundantly and serially clear that in any situation where they feel there is even the possibility of harm, they must not worry about being “polite.” In the current political climate, this is perhaps even truer for our daughters who wear hijab.
As a young attorney living by myself in New York City, I placed the same order for takeout nearly every night: tofu and broccoli in brown sauce, and Mountain Dew. Often I had the same delivery person, a man somewhere in his twenties. We usually engaged in friendly banter, often about my choice of beverage. He felt familiar – not an acquaintance exactly, but something more than a stranger. And so one night when he handed me my food and asked if he could use my bathroom, I caught myself about to say yes. But I was older and wiser than the young teen who had let the construction worker in a decade earlier. I had learned that the world is not a safe place for an overly polite woman.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but no. You can’t.”
I didn’t offer an explanation. I didn’t wait to hear his response. I closed the door aware that I may well have offended him, that he may not have “liked” me in that moment. But I could live with that. I was safe.
Editor’s Note: Jennifer Zobair is a biological and adoptive mother, an attorney, and a writer. She is the author of the debut novel, Painted Hands (St.Martin’s Press, 2013) and the co-editor of Faithfully Feminist: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Feminists on Why We Stay (forthcoming from I Speak For Myself/White Cloud Press, 2015). She lives with her husband and three children in the DC area. Connect with Jennifer on twitter @jazobair or through her website at www.jenniferzobair.com. The views expressed here are her own.