When Is Being Polite More Trouble Than It's Worth?

Art by Sam Woolley

As a human living in society, you are often urged to ignore the signals your body sends you just for the sake of keeping up appearances. I wish you didn’t, for your own sake.


Recently I picked the last dumpling out of a carton and I took it and plopped it into my mouth whole. It seemed to have been cooling off on our table for 15 minutes, and people had eaten all the other dumplings without incident, but its meat ‘n’ chive contents hit my tongue like a lash of boiling water. Despite my best efforts, I could not “keep calm and chive on.” Panic set in.

My impulse was to spit the whole thing back into the carton but I was sitting at a table with some people I’d just met, friends of friends who didn’t deserve to see me upchuck dumpling guts. (Old friends do.) It seemed not just generally impolite but also an inauspicious first impression to make on these unsuspecting people. So instead, my strategy was to minimize the time the dumpling would spend in my mouth by half-chewing it and swallowing it as fast as possible. Dumpling pieces slid down the gullet like hot coals. A gulp of ice water helped me recover some dignity, but my eyes were watering, I nearly retched, and I woke up the next morning with a throat so scalded it hurt to eat most food for three days.

My new philosophy is to never sacrifice my health for the sake of decorum. Turn away and spit up the dumpling chunks if you have to, and then calmly explain yourself. The sixteenth century astronomer Tycho Brahe is fondly remembered for the (probably apocryphal) tale about his bladder rupturing after he refused to stand up and pee during a fancy banquet. If you need to handle business with your body, please do so. Tycho Brahe died eleven days later. You should die for better reasons than that.

If you have any stories of your own about stubbornly and stupidly adhering to manners, please share.