This question arises because more often than not it seems it is not important what we are being told. From our earliest childhood, we are taught how to express our wants and needs in a clear way so that people can help us, but when it comes to actually dealing with people, we tend to hide our wants behind polite phrases and smiling faces. Manners, while incredibly important in some cases, overwhelm our ability to interact meaningfully with each other.
Think about the last time you went to the store looking for an orange shirt with some of your friends. You searched the store top to bottom but could not find an orange shirt, although you did find a few different articles of clothing. When you went to the front to pay, the cashier asked you, “Did you find everything you were looking for today?”
It is almost certain that most people would answer this question with “yes”, even though they did not find the orange shirt they were looking for. They realize that the cashier is only asking out of courtesy, and that social norms dictate they ask the question, and that you respond with a smile and a polite confirmation that you found everything you were looking for, even though you did not. It’s the way social interaction in stores happens.
But it doesn’t let the store know you were looking for orange shirts.
However, if you mention that you did not find the orange shirt you were looking for, answering the clerk’s question with the truth, you will have committed an awful faux pas. The clerk will probably apologize in shock. Your friends will be embarrassed by your honest ways, and you will be scorned for having spoken your mind rather than just blithely answering the cashier’s question with a white lie.
Another instance where this happens is in restaurants when ordering a drink. Often, people will ask for a Coke, to which your server responds “is Pepsi OK?” Now, I am not saying that it’s acceptable to stand up, throw the menu at the server, and proclaim, “No, Pepsi is not OK!” However, you should be allowed to request something else without dirty looks. If I request a Coke and they don’t have one, I would get a dirty look for saying, “No, Pepsi’s not OK, I’d rather have a 7-Up.” For some reason, everyone is a little taken aback that you didn’t just accede to a Pepsi even though you wanted a Coke.
It’s even worse if you anticipate that question in advance and give your second choice when ordering. The amount of scorn you might receive for specifically requesting a Canada Dry ginger ale if they have it, but a 7-Up if they don’t is incredible. Your friends will mock you incessantly for stating exactly what you want, rather than just letting your server get you any old brand of ginger ale. If you specifically know what you want, why aren’t you allowed to say it?
These are just two examples, but these situations happen all the time. Manners are critical in keeping things civil, but sometimes they are just detrimental to understanding a situation and expressing exactly what you need. Civility can sometimes go too far.