On the Use of Courtesy Prompts and Sarcasm

I’ve always objected to the use of polite phrases (“excuse me”) as prompts–or worse, demands–for proper behavior. What brings this up at the moment is a discussion of parents using “Excuse me!” to shut their children down. That’s not what courteous phrases are for. They are meant to be expressions of deference, never demands. “Excuse me!” to demand silence is at best a disingenuous use of the phrase–that is, there’s nothing sincere or civil about it. Requests for forbearance, which is what “excuse me” and “(if you) please” are for, should not be compromised by sarcasm. And requests for forbearance never call for exclamation points, unless perhaps one is begging, not demanding. Sarcasm is diametrically opposed to civility. Lots of parents do this, and I think it’s just wrong. And then people grow up thinking it’s okay to do with other adults, and I think that’s just wrong, too.

I’ve done surprisingly little writing about sarcasm, a fact that’s odd because I think it’s terribly important. Sarcasm is much more damaging that most people give it credit for being. People say that they admire sarcasm, but I can only assume that they mean facetiousness, which is different, or sly turns of phrase, perhaps. The intent of sarcasm is to tear down, to damage. It never belongs in conversation between people who love or respect each other. And it never belongs on the lips of people trying to inculcate civility into children.

(Some time I will write about parents who say “please” when they don’t mean “if you please” at all. I think it sends an absolutely wrong message. If it’s not optional, “please” has no place in the command. People who think it does don’t really understand courtesy.)

"Artists are here to disturb the peace." —James Baldwin. Please lesave a comment!

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