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Danny Wallace on why politeness is in rude health

I am intent on buying a coffee and a sandwich from a well-known high-street bakers, but my hands are full and, although I’ve stopped listening to music, I haven’t taken my earphones out yet. There’s no queue and I get straight to the counter, and the man behind it makes a point of saying “Morning”.

But it’s not a “Morning!” with an exclamation mark. It doesn’t represent or evoke joy. It is just the word “Morning” said loudly.

“Morning,” I reply, as a bus passes. I put whatever I can into my pockets and look up to order.

It’s then that I spot the man roll his eyes. Why is he rolling his eyes?

He looks away and I spy a slight shake of the head.

And then, very quietly and hardly moving his lips he looks at the ground and says, “Oh, morning to you, too, how are you, I’m fine, thanks very much, nice to chat.”

Has he gone quite mad?

Then he plasters on a smile and looks back at me with dead eyes.

I realise what has happened.

“I can hear you,” I say.

“I’m sorry?” he says.

“I can hear you,” I say, taking out an earphone. “There’s no music. I can hear you.”

He thought I was a terrible man who would rather listen to music than engage on a human level with a member of the service industry! His paranoia is rampant!

“Well, I said ‘morning’,” he says, caught, but not backing down.

“I know you said morning, and I said morning back,” I say.

He thinks I’ve been rude to him. He thinks I’ve walked in with my headphones on, and ignored him.

“I didn’t hear you say morning,” he smiles, but still with dead eyes. I can’t let it go. I must not allow him to think I was being rude. It was him who was rude, having a sarcastic conversation with himself. And then he adds: “I can only apologise.”

Well, he doesn’t sound like he is apologising. He’d have just said sorry. Instead, he’s all “I can only apologise”, like he’s a sarcastic butler, and we both know he thinks I’m lying, and he’ll bitch about me later. Also, all he’s apologising for is not hearing me say morning. What about his one-man play?

I seethe as I realise he thinks he’s got one up on me.

“Well I came in and you said ‘morning’,” I say, not letting it go, “and then I said ‘morning’ back, but I was putting things in my pocket and then I looked up and you were impersonating me.”

Impersonating me! He was hardly impersonating me. But I was supposed to be the other character in his amateur dramatics, and by pointing this out and feigning offence I’ve now got one up on him!

“I was not impersonating you,” he says, and I make a face that says I think he was, even though I don’t.

A new customer walks in and starts looking at doughnuts.

“Well it seemed like you were impersonating me,” I say, “when you had that chat with yourself.”

The thing is, I get it. This guy must just get grunted at or ignored by early morning men and women every day. But I wasn’t being rude, and he didn’t know he was being rude to me, and yet we’re both acting like we think the other is Hitler. We could have laughed it off. I could have said “Sorry, I did say ‘morning’,” and he could have said “Oh, goodness, I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you, and I thought your headphones were on,” and I’d have laughed and said “Yes, I should have taken them out!”

Morning,” he says, to the man looking at doughnuts.

“Yeah,” says the man looking at doughnuts, which isn’t quite the response he was hoping for.

“A coffee, please,” I say, and my please is dripping with meaning. I’m saying please. I’m polite. But I’m not giving you the polite please, I’m giving you the pointed please.

“Any type in particular, sir?” he says, lightly, but look what he’s doing. He’s pointing out my muddle-mindedness and he’s calling me ‘sir’. He is distancing himself, showing how professional he is in the face of such callous arrogance, with his “any type in particular sir”.

“Yes?” I spit, but I haven’t decided and he’s caught me on the back foot. “A flat white, if that’s OK.”

Oof. Take that. If that’s OK! Politeness as a weapon.

The man at the doughnuts looks at us. He knows something’s wrong but can’t work out what. We’re saying all the right things to each other, just not quite in the right way.

As he fusses over my coffee and taps the buttons hard to show how good he is at his job, I decide I’m not going to buy a sandwich now. That is how I will punish him. I will not buy a sandwich he did not know I was going to buy, and I will not eat lunch because of it. That’ll teach this idiot.

“£1.75, please,” he says, and I will not dignify that with an answer. I hand him the money and walk out.

“Goodbye!” he shouts after me, timing it perfectly: I’m halfway out the door and striding. I look rude!

“GOODBYE!” I shout, madly, as I walk down the street. “GOODBYE!”

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