Being Polite

I went up north this weekend. This isn’t something I’ve done since the pandemic hit, but Tony was going up for the evening to take a client to dinner. The client is married, and I’d met the wife before. (The wife. This is my unedited thinking: not his wife, the wife. Jeez.) I liked her. We met when they came down to the cities a couple of years ago to watch a Twins game. She was the only person at the game I’d found anything to talk about, which gave Tony the idea that it would be nice to drive two and a half hours north of the city to rural Wadena to take them out to dinner.

Wadena, population 4,094, is the largest town in Wadena County, population 13,773. The county has had a 86 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Only 17 new cases have been confirmed. That’s it. Coming from Hennepin County, where the majority of Minnesota’s COVID-19 cases have been, it was like visiting another planet. 

In general, I’m on the cautious end of the spectrum when it comes to COVID. I take social distancing seriously. I wear a mask. I wash my hands until they’re cracked and dry. I’m willing to venture out into the world more than I was early on, but I don’t go any place where mask compliance is low. I’ll eat at a restaurant on a patio, but not indoors. I went to the movie theaters once, after they opened, spent nearly two-hours having a low-grade panic attack that nobody was wearing masks when they were supposed to and decided I wouldn’t be going again. The movies aren’t fun anymore. Not for me. I’m nervous. I want to follow the rules. At the movies, in the dark, when nobody was watching, I wore my mask the entire time. I didn’t even take it off to have a sip or water, which was allowed.

I’d expected— assumed, really— that if we were driving up to Wadena take the pair to dinner, it must be on a patio somewhere. The idea of eating indoors seemed almost foreign. Bizarre. We pulled up to a restaurant: no patio. We put our masks on to walk into the hottest spot in town. A cluster of middle-aged men in John Deere baseball caps and teenage girls in cowboy hats, boots and spurs, crowded the hostess, waiting to be seated. Then we took our masks off. Nobody wore a mask. Not even me. The tables were spread out a bit, but the parties were large. Groups of six, eight, ten, a dozen people crowded shoulder to shoulder, laughing loudly over a plate of shared mozzarella sticks. People were laughing, loud, right in each other’s faces. Anything goes. In my mind, apparently, that meant anything goes except wearing a mask even if you want to. 

It wasn’t because I felt like this was a safe choice, or because I was caught up in the moment. I wasn’t enjoying myself. I was trying to fit in. This was a business dinner. I was there to be nice, to show them a good time. I was there to support my husband. This wasn’t any time to be myself— especially if myself happened to be low-grade anxious the entire evening. I just wanted to do what everyone was doing.

I’m not blaming this one entirely on the patriarchy. Men want to fit in, too. We all sometimes do what other people are doing, just cuz. It’s human. It’s natural. 

It’s troubling, but almost every situation where I’ve found myself behaving counter to my instincts, it’s been when I’m with my husband and I don’t want to embarrass him by making a scene. I didn’t want to wear a mask when no one else was, because that would mean questions. And the answer to almost any question about why I thought wearing a mask matters would include calling the questioner an arrogant idiot. 

Last Saturday, I felt it was my job to help show them a good time. I felt it was my job to not say anything when the client suggested driving around and tearing down Biden signs in people’s yards. (There were an encouraging number of them. Just so you know.) I didn’t say anything that might be different. It’s not because I’m a woman, really, but the fact that I was there as a wife meant I was more concerned with making the evening go smoothly for my husband than I was concerned about my own health— mental, physical, you name it. My concern was not making a scene. Not being dramatic. Not getting emotional or making people uncomfortable or taking up space. Everyone wants to fit in, but the choice to make myself smaller in order to make that happen…. The way I went about it feels particularly female. Or, it feels particular to the way women tend to operate in polite society. Polite, patriarchal society. 

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