“Are you sure?” is such a tricky question for me. It’s an area of politeness that I tend to feel quite conflicted about. It hits my ‘this is offensive’ buttons, but it also hits my ‘this is an important aspect of politeness to participate in’ buttons. So I do it, but I kind of feel bad about it.
I learned to ask “are you sure?” in childhood, in the face of capricious generosity. I learned that offers are not always sincere, and it’s better to check than to take them at face value. This is not a lesson I am particularly happy that I learned, but learn it I did.
A while back this lesson was explicitly reinforced by my therapist. Due to the fact that I take the train to my therapy sessions, it is not uncommon for me to get there half an hour early. One time my therapist had a free slot in the hour before my session was to start, so she offered to let my therapy session start early.
I replied, “are you sure?”
She then proceeded to compliment me on the fact that I asked this. She told me that it’s good to check in like this and doing so showed social skills on my part. I will admit that I was dubious about this compliment. I had actually felt kind of bad about asking, and was not prepared to be told that I had done the right thing.
See, asking “are you sure?” is, at least to me, an insult. It is questioning the offerer’s sincerity and requiring them to reaffirm that they really meant what they said. It is implicitly stating that I believe they may have not meant what they said, which strikes me as an unkind thing to believe. It plays right into the aspects of politeness that actually strike me as being rather rude.
I had a friend who agrees with me on this, and has stated that they have some trouble with the fact that I tend to ask this. From my perspective, that just means that they recognize “are you sure” for what it really is – disbelief in a person’s sincerity. They would rather I simply believe them at face value than question any offer they make.
Honestly, I would rather do that too. I would rather do that with everyone, all the time. Always questioning if a person actually means what they say is tiring and frustrating, and I resent doing it. I resent the way offers and requests are often switched around in phrasing, I resent passive-aggressive ways people sometimes make requests, and I resent that I cannot always believe people’s offers. However, while I can try to keep in mind that this friend in particular makes a point to be sincere in their offers, I cannot forget that most people do not.
When it comes right down to it, I seem to live in a culture of insincerity. A culture that makes heavy use of phrases like ‘let’s do lunch!’ A culture where it’s normal for a person to make an offer that the recipient is meant to refuse, but ‘appreciate the thought.’ While there are other aspects of politeness-via-lying that I can opt out of with minimal social consequences, this is not one of them. I feel obligated to play along, however much I resent it. However much I am disquieted by my own disbelief in other people.
Much of this politeness-via-lying seems to be wrapped up in cultural insecurity around offers and requests. People seem to put so much effort into obfuscating givers and recipients in any situation outside of ritual gift-giving occasions. It is something that, try as I might, I have yet to understand. So instead, I opt out when I can, and do my best to play along when the consequences of refusing to play are greater than I can (or want) handle.
But really, I wish the social protocols made more sense.