Issues,  Legal Practice

Cultural Conflict: Being Too Polite

One of the great dilemmas we encounter is aligning our upbringing and culture with the expectations of the mainstream–especially in a conservative field like the law.  Cultural conflicts often demand that we change our behavior so that those in charge find it easier to accept us.  But as the current VP says–that’s a bunch of malarkey!  Before we opt to make changes, it’s important to analyze and decide why we have to change just so that  systems of power feel comfortable around us.

Easier said than done!  Instead, many times we just opt to play by the rules to get just an inch ahead–even if the rules don’t seem logical, fair, or natural to us.  What are some cultural changes you’ve had to adapt to be better accepted in the law?

For me, one of the difficult changes has been altering my manners.  My beloved, late Tio Heladio bore manners and civility into all his children, grandchildren, and me (his favorite niece, obvi) like it was his job.   Nothing could make him prouder than seeing one of us behaving properly, like responding with “Mande?” when someone called our name, rather than the overly blunt “Que?!”  As a child, he was my first father-figure, and I adored him.  I always wanted to make him proud of me by being as polite as I could be.  As I grew older, I continued to be civil and proper, even when others were not.  I did it because it felt natural to me, and because it was my way of keeping a connection to my family.


Fast-forward to law school.  During a trial advocacy drill, I ask the judge to admit a piece of evidence, she agrees.  I take the evidence back from the bench and instinctively say, “thank you.”  The instructor stops the drill, and warns me to stop doing that.   “Some day you’re going to be in trial and say thank you to the judge, and he’ll tell you in front of the jury to not thank him because he didn’t do it for you.  How will you recover then?!”

Um. What?  I felt really embarrassed because this happened in front of other students.  I was also taken aback that a judge could possibly find it offensive that I was being polite.  I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised–this is Chicago after all.  Even if the instructor was correct, and the use of please/thank you could give juries the wrong impression; it was difficult to stop.  I had to consciously make an effort to stop my natural instincts and it just never felt right.

Thankfully, soon after that incident,  I watched the film 12 Angry Men for another class.  In this classic movie, there is an immigrant who is polite.   Finally, one of them goes off and yells, “why do you gotta be so polite for!?”  And he responds, “For the same reason you are not–it’s the way I was raised.”   Amazing.

This scene, as silly as it may be, helped me realize that I could still be my true self even if others didn’t like it.  I realized it was a choice.  I could keep doing what I felt was natural and professional, or I could change to perhaps be better accepted.  And that’s the thing–it’s no guarantee that even if we assimilate completely that we’ll be accepted completely.   People don’t look at me and assume I’m an interpreter because I’m too polite.  They do it because of what I look like, and because of the existing social stratification in this profession.  Once I understood this, it made it easy to not always be so willing to change my characteristics.

Now, as a practicing attorney, I try to be my true polite self.  I am civil with the government attorneys, hot-headed colleagues, and try to be gracious in adversarial situations (emphasis on try).  No one has called me out on this behavior; though I know some may have negative connotations with manners.  However, unless and until I see a real adverse impact  (aside from some eye-rolls from people that don’t matter), I plan on being my true self and keep making my Tio Heladio proud.

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