Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Tips for a Polite Christmas and Beyond

Hello Polite Readers!

Well, when I decided to restart this blog I didn't think about the fact that my columns would fall on two holidays in a row. For today and New Years Day I'll have a couple of themed columns and then it's back to answering your letters!

Before we get started, a little note to my fellow non-Christmas-celebrating readers: Hello. I know, I know. Christmas. Ugh. What are you gonna do? I've been counting down the days until I wouldn't have to hear "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" or "Santa Baby" again, and here I am contributing to the problem. But I think we can all agree that the dreaded C-Day brings out some bad behavior in people, so let's politely help them behave.

Here's a few tips to stay cool and polite this Christmas, inspired by past columns and real-life experience.

1. Be thankful for any gifts you receive, no matter how tacky or otherwise inappropriate they might be. You can dispose of them later, but in front of the gift-giver, be the very image of gratitude.

2. Be prepared to dodge awkward conversations. If you know ahead of time that you're going to have to deal with people whose religious or political beliefs are opposite yours, or who think they have the right to comment negatively on your relationships, reproductive choices, or physical appearance, pre-plan some firm but polite responses, and good ways to change the subject to more neutral ground.

3. Be ready to compromise. We don't usually get to do exactly what we want for the holidays. You may need to be gracious about accommodating extra guests, eating less than fabulous food, or watching sports or schmaltzy Christmas movies that you don't particularly like.

4. Be firm but polite about your boundaries. You do not need to let your creepy uncle hug you, you do not have to eat the food you're allergic to, you do not have to get drawn into a conversation about how the guy you voted for in the last election is an idiot.

5. Be generous however you can. Give thoughtful gifts. Bring something delicious to the potluck. Bring a hostess gift. Donate to charity. Be free with the compliments. Help with clean-up.

6. And remember, Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, whatever you say, the thought behind it should be the same "I hope you have a good day whatever you celebrate."

See you in 2014! In the meantime, you can always drop me a line at with your questions about civil discourse.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Complimenting, Condoning, Critiquing, Criticizing and other words that start with C.

Hello Polite Readers!

This week's question comes from one of my dancing friends and has to do with politely correcting someone's dance, although you can apply these tips to other art forms and knowledge as well:

Hey there! I'm not sure if you've addressed this or not but I thought it would be the perfect thing to ask you about for your blog.

I love belly dancing. I love all forms of it; it makes me happy like you would not believe. However I cannot stand when a person says "Oh the style I'm doing is ATS" when it is clearly cabaret or "I'm doing fusion" when it is, in essence, interpretive/modern dance. It drives me batty. I'd rather a person say "I'm doing cabaret and adding a bit of my own style into it" as opposed to saying something else. 

That being said, how do you provide feedback or constructive criticism to someone when they ask for it? You can't rightly say "your dancing was NOT type A" as that would be incredibly inappropriate. 


I'm glad you asked! This is a really important question because while oftentimes I'd tell you to just politely refuse to critique them by saying "I don't think I'm really qualified to critique you" or something along those lines, there's currently a great trend in the dance community of hosting salons where dancers bring their new works to be critiqued by each other, so you're going to be expected to politely express your opinion.

First and foremost, I always recommend using the "Criticism Sandwich" that I've discussed before on this blog. Make sure your complaints or questions about their stylistic choices are firmly sandwiched between two compliments about their technique, stage presence or musicality (try not to make one of the compliments be about their costume, as some dancers immediately take this to mean that their dance sucked and you can't think of one nice thing to say about it. The exception to this would be if you know they made the costume, you should compliment their hard work on that at some point).

Next, you have to decide how serious their infringement was and how qualified you are to address it. For instance, as a student of tribal fusion who is also enthusiastic about all bellydance styles, I enjoy watching Egyptian-style belly dance but I don't know enough about it to really explain what exactly makes something Egyptian and to call someone on it for not being very, well, Egyptian. I could have a deep gut feeling that what I just watched wasn't very authentic, but I wouldn't be able to back up my argument with facts. I'd just have to hope that someone with a strong background in that style would question the dancer's choice.

But if you are, for instance, an experienced ATS dancer and you see someone dancing something that doesn't include a single FCBD-approved move (or has just a couple moves sprinkled into an otherwise cabaret-inspired piece which looks suspiciously choreographed), you're in a good position to ask the dancer why she chose to call her dance ATS. Here's an imaginary conversation:

Her: Hey, what did you think of my dance?

You: It was nice! I was really impressed by how crisp your turns are. But I am a little confused as to why you called it an ATS performance? It didn't look like the ATS I'm used to.
(Note that at this point you've given her an open-faced criticism sandwich as you have to pause to let her answer your question)

Her: Oh well, I'm an American and I was dancing to a song that sounds really tribal and I felt like wearing a big skirt and drawing Berber tattoos on my face, so I felt like that made it American Tribal Style.

You: I see why you would think that, but actually ATS refers to a specific style <insert proper description here, phrased gently>.

Her: Thank you, I didn't know that!

You: No problem! And by the way, great shimmies. I look forward to seeing more from you in the future! (Now you've put that second slice of yummy bread on top of the meaty criticism)

As for the constant drift of fusion... That's a tricky one because everyone seems to have their own idea of how much bellydance there has to be in a dance for it to be still considered "tribal fusion", and everyone has their own opinion of which moves count as bellydance and which moves are shared by enough different styles of dance that they don't truly count unless you're using them with nothing but other bellydance. *sigh* It is true that sometimes in the pursuit of more artistic expression or excitement over a new technique she finally mastered in jazz class, a dancer might start to offer material that has little to no bellydance technique in it without consciously meaning to drift so far. They might think that what they're presenting is bellydance, because they still consider themselves a bellydancer and they still practice their bellydance technique, they just sort of forgot to put any of it in this particular choreography. Ooops.

The question is whether or not to address it? If you do, you run the risk of sounding like the Bellydance Police. My knee-jerk reaction to hearing "That's not bellydance!" is to say "Sure it is, it's just not what you're used to!" even if afterwards, when watching a video or replaying it in my mind later I realize that yeah, actually, that was 100% lyrical jazz without any bellydance in it.

Honestly, I think the occasional non-bellydance in an otherwise bellydance show is a little breath of fresh air and can provoke conversation, so if someone does it once and asks for your opinion, I'd let it slide and leave it up to the event promoter to address if they feel it wasn't bellydance enough for their event. But if it seems to be a trend with this particular performer, or with a large part of your community, bring it up casually. "I really liked your performance tonight but lately I've noticed that your work seems really heavily influenced by jazz/ballet/hiphop/clogging and I'm not seeing as much traditional bellydance. Are you changing your focus?" Don't make it seem like a bad thing, even if you don't like it. You may find that they were feeling a little burned out or constrained by bellydance, started exploring other directions, went a little astray and needed a friendly question to remind them to move back towards their roots.

The important thing is to have a gentle touch. Don't say "Your dance was NOT..." but make it more about opinions instead of facts. Try to avoid appearing to be a know-it-all or the style police, make the focus about making sure "the general public" doesn't get confused (when in doubt, always blame the poor, confused general public, they just don't understand that there are different styles of bellydance so we have to make everything really clear for them!).

I hope this helps!

If you have your own sticky situation, write me at and you could be featured soon!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dealing with "Toppers"

Hello Polite Readers!

Politely Worded is back! I had a very busy Autumn and sort of let it fall by the wayside, but I've really missed this blog so I hope you'll help me revive it by sending your letters to I'll be resuming my regular every-Wednesday update schedule.

I'd like to kick things off by discussing a problem that I've been witnessing on Facebook and other social media a lot lately, which is "topper" behavior. You know the sort, whatever happens to you, they have a story of something better, worse or more crazy that happened to them. I'm not referring to sharing similar stories in a spirit of camaraderie, but of saying "Oh, that's nothing, the other day I..."

You'll see it a lot this time of year in regards to weather. Large chunks of the US just got hit with a nasty cold storm, which means that quite a few of us were colder than we expected to be before the Solstice hit. This means that quite a few of us in traditionally warm areas were complaining about the sudden cold, having to cover our plants, trying to find a good coat, and getting the furnace or fireplace up and running. Almost every single AZ person ended up with a response from someone farther north or east telling us to suck it up, because it was 18F or whatever where they were.

You'll also see it with health issues. If you have a cold or sprained your wrist, you get told not to complain, because someone else has a chronic illness.

But here's the thing: knowing someone else has it worse than you doesn't automatically make your own discomfort going away. Objectively, I know 18F is much colder than 50F, but that does nothing to stop me from being chilled because I'm adapted to a warm climate. Objectively, a cold isn't that big of a deal but it is annoying when you get one two days before a major dance performance when you should be practicing. Unhappiness is not a contest where only the winners (losers?) get sympathy.

Similarly, you may see this attitude in regards to causes. If you're involved in the "body love" movement, you'll see people saying that because people who are overweight face more stigma than people who are thin, we should ignore the problem of skinny shaming. But knowing that some other group gets bullied more than you do doesn't make it hurt less when someone says something mean. Likewise, if we all gave all of our money to curing cancer, for instance, it wouldn't do anything to help people living in poverty, or rescue abused pets or preserve a local historic building.

So what do you do when faced with this sort of attitude? It depends on the situation. If someone is just spouting off a stupid opinion in their own status update, you should probably not engage. If they respond to your own update with a "suck it up" sort of attitude, I recommend killing them with kindness. "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that it's so cold where you are. I could never live there, I like my warm winters too much." Or pointedly ignore them. Respond to the people who add to the conversation and ignore the people who just want to draw attention to themselves or be negative.

Sometimes, you can use it as a teaching moment. When dealing with social issues and "X is worse than Y" opinions, engage them in a thoughtful conversation. Ask them why they feel that way, explain why you disagree (or why you agree, but you find that you're able to combat both X and Y). With luck you'll be able to have an intelligent conversation and you'll both come out of it feeling better-educated and more empathic to those who feel differently.

If you find that someone is a constant negative influence in your on-line life and you don't need to communicate with them, you should really just unfriend them or otherwise remove them from your network. If they do need to be a part of your life, it may be time to send them a private message and ask why they have been making such pointed comments on your posts, and is something bothering them?

Next week we'll have a question of dance etiquette, my favorite!