Those Reddit ‘British-problems’ inspired articles get me a little bit nostalgic…
This was shocking… for the old me.
For non-Brits out there, asking if anyone wants the last biscuit, means that the person asking, wants it but isn’t, according to the terms of social etiquette, allowed to say it. Even more confusing, the ‘someone’ who took the last biscuit would be considered rude by taking it because the asker has the implicit prior claim (since he asked).
If you ever find yourself in a last biscuit conundrum and want nothing more than to not be invited back, you can commit the cardinal sin in asking the asker if their question implied that they wanted the last biscuit.
Understand this; overtly stating your wants and needs in my version of middle class Britain is considered selfish, uncouth and downright rude. So the person in question would be forced to politely decline (against their will) simply to save face ~
‘No, no I couldn’t possibly take it.’
You will not be liked (or invited back) if you force their hand in this way.
In most British tea parties therefore, the last biscuit goes unfinished. Sometimes people break off half. Then another quarter. Until there is a mere crumb left on the plate.
Many want it, but no one wants to appear selfish or worse, imply that the host didn’t supply enough biscuits (which would question their generosity and/or hosting skills). Implication and inference is rife which make tea parties a very delicate gathering. It’s no wonder we talk about the weather and have to get drunk to talk honestly.
What does this tell us? Not (just) that we are polite to a fault with peculiarly restrictive etiquette. It tells us that Britain is a nation of passive communicators.
Passive Communication in Polyamory
Communication strategies take central stage in More Than Two Franklin & Eve’s new book on practical polyamory and rightly so. Whilst communication strategies are the subject of whole books, More Than Two explores some aspects which are the downfall of many relationships. Passive communication is one of them.
It’s 7 years now since our first quad relationship crumbled due to many factors, one of which being that I ~ a quintessentially British woman socialized in middle class etiquette ~ was unable to state my needs. I had a high tolerance for unacceptable behaviour. I was trained in it. So I inadvertently allowed the three members of my quad to cross my boundaries again and again; I didn’t assert myself, I couldn’t express my feelings and I allowed my grievances to grow and repressed them until they built up to such a fever pitch that no resolution was possible.
They jumped off the sofa and scurried into the bedroom to perform a great Sunday afternoon sexual concerto which we could hear very clearly albeit it behind closed doors. I was not even an afterthought. Two choices presented themselves to me.
- Make a fuss, state your needs, be selfish and say you’re uncomfortable. Risk ridicule, misunderstanding and destroy three other peoples’ perfectly good Sunday. Aren’t you worth it?
- Keep quiet. Rationalize with yourself about your own issues which are presumably creating this panic inside you, be the bigger person. Live with it.
Live with it. Of course I would live with it. This was my way. In a flash I saw my life ahead. Elena had two primary partners. Her husband and my husband. She monopolized the attention of my husband when she wanted it. I was the doormat waiting to be used when they had had their fill. I was given the leftovers and had to be grateful for it.
[The Husband Swap ~ Louisa Leontiades]
The alternative at the time was unthinkable. In order to communicate directly, assertively and healthily I would have had to change into someone who would have been considered by my family and society to be selfish, uncouth and rude. I would have had to go against all my upbringing. I was a passive communicator. Conversely my sisterwife was a direct communicator and yes, I considered her selfish, uncouth and rude at the time, just as I had been taught.
It’s not ~ as Franklin and Eve point out ~ that passive communication is ‘wrong’ per se; simply that it is not conducive to building one healthy relationship, let alone multiple relationships.
Direct [communication] starts from the premise that if your partner wants something, she will ask for it. You need to resist the impulse to infer a judgement, desire or need that’s not explicitly stated. You need to assume that if your partner does not bring up an issue, she has no issue and is not just being polite. Conversely if she brings up an issue she’s not doing it to be confrontational or impolite, but to discuss it. [More Than Two]
Of course this is not always the case. Some people do have aggressive communication strategies, which will alienate others, generate fear and tend to blame others rather than taking responsibility for their own issues. But direct does not have to be aggressive. Nor should you assume it since this in itself can create a self fulfilling prophecy. Direct can also be compassionate.
The most distinct advantage of direct communication is that it forces you to practise your ‘no’.
When you are accustomed to using passive communication or unable to set boundaries or when you feel you don’t have the ability to say no to something, then it’s very hard for your partners to have confidence in your yes. [More Than Two]
And the most distinct consequence of not being able to say no means that the relationship and your life becomes coercive. Non-consensual.
I have said ‘no’ very quietly in a wood once whilst being raped, because I wasn’t quite sure whether he would hit me again if I screamed (and besides going for walk was my idea in the first place). My body sometimes screamed NO and I’ve violated it anyway with a partner; fearing more to be alone (through withholding sex) than about whether I was really ‘in the mood’ or not.
Where choice is restricted and the consequences are a matter of what the mind considers to be survival, it is not consent.
Techniques to Develop Assertive Communication
More Than Two covers a variety of skills and exercises you can use to learn assertive communication.
- Using declarative statements rather than leading questions ~ ‘I would like to go out tonight’ rather than ‘Would you like to go out tonight?’
- Using plain language in the active voice rather than the passive voice ~ ‘I need you to take out the garbage’ rather than ‘Taking care of this problem with the garbage was supposed to be your responsibility’
- Ask for what you need ~
- As your needs stand and not with respect to what you believe other people want/have ‘I need such and thus’ rather than ‘I need more than any of your other partners get’
- Leave room for your partner to choose how to meet your needs ‘I need to feel supported by you rather than ‘I need you to do things with me you will never do with anyone else.’
- And be ok if the answer to your request is ‘no.’ (If you’re not okay with hearing a no, then you are demanding not asking).
- Talk about the reasons why you want or need the things you want or need. It’s scary because it leaves us vulnerable and open to questioning (this is where compassion comes in)
- Be curious; set aside pre-judgements (and the intense feelings connected with them) and ask questions. Not barely veiled accusations; genuine requests for information.
- Talk about things that bother you whilst they are still small. Express what you want early and often.
There’s more, plenty more in More Than Two. But of course in order to practice these skills in the first place, you will have to become the ‘selfish, uncouth and rude’ person you were always taught you not to be.
And that’s when you’ll have to ask yourself. Is my happiness worth more than my constructed image, my status and my social position? Because if you want the damn biscuit, you’ll have more chance of getting it, if you just ask.
This article is part of the More Than Two series:
- Romantic Friendships in the Modern Era
- How Passive Communication Killed My Relationship
- When (Open) Relationships End
You can order the paperback of More than Two on Amazon.