There are a whole lot of unwritten rules about how we ‘ought’ to respond when someone says something to us. We have learned from what we have heard in the talk that goes on around us as we gradually acquire the gift of words. We are told that these rules constitute ‘good manners’. It makes talk easier and quicker to manage once we have assimilated them.
The ideas about what ‘good manners’ are vary in different cultures. However the reason that we need them is meant to help us not to disconcert or upset other people.
When I was a child we were taught to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ when we made a request or received a gift. No-one could argue about that. Yet it is slowly dying out and that is a pity. Families sat round the table together for meals and that happens less and less. The strength of the family is important because it gives us the chance to talk to each other in these busy times.
However, what do we say when someone asks us a question we don’t want to answer or gives us an order we resent? Do you have to answer? Do you have to obey? It depends on the circumstances. Small children were often exploited in this way when I was small. In the Victorian era and earlier it was much worse. All sorts of rules operated such as ‘children should be seen but not heard’ and ‘Do what you are told’. These have died out on the whole which is a good thing.
If an adult says something that is clearly meant as malicious or intrusive then we have every right to reply as we wish. If we retaliate by saying ‘mind your own business’ or that sort of thing, it is likely that you could end up in an argument. There are several things you can do to prevent it. A useful one is ‘why do you ask that question?’ or ‘would you please say that again. I have poor hearing?’ If you reply in a friendly fashion and they repeat what they have said it often helps them to see that they have made a faux pas. If they are so thick-skinned as not to notice, just say goodbye in a friendly way and walk off.
On the whole most of us don’t mean to be unpleasant, and if we give an unexpected answer and a smile the sour atmosphere will begin to clear. If someone confronts us in a tearing rage looking for an argument, the best thing to do is to stay calm or in an extreme case to run away. It takes two to tango.
You can say anything you like when people say disagreeable things. It can be a lot of fun. My deceased husband was a pastmaster at disconcerting people. We were at a party and we met a couple who looked about the same age as ourselves. The husband said to Bob “How old do you think I am?” This is one of those words that old people say when they like to think they look younger than they are.
Having scrutinised him carefully, Bob said “I should think about one hundred and twenty”. There was not anything he could say to that. He just gazed in astonishment.