Dear Miss Manners:
I am a very private person, and I believe that having good manners is important, so I work hard at being polite every day. I have had a co-worker for the last two years who keeps asking me what I'm "really like."
When this happens, I answer, "This is what I'm really like," until he gets tired of it and gives up. I have encountered other people who ask me variations of this same question, e.g. "What is the real you like?"
If my co-worker ever hears me say something even vaguely negative or not entirely polite, he says with great pleasure, "Now, there's the real you coming out."
I am getting frustrated with people who assume that my slip-ups and mistakes expose more of my real character than the manners I work hard at every day. I am getting tired of people who take my reserved demeanor as a kind of challenge.
Is there a way to politely get these kinds of people to leave me alone and stop prodding me like I am some kind of circus animal? I feel like they're hoping I'll crack one day and throw a fit, but I don't understand why.
Whole schools of unpleasant art have been built on the idea that only the ugly is real.
The same notion applied to people appeals to those who, like your co-worker, want to justify their own rudeness on the grounds that they are being natural, honest and true to themselves. As they undoubtedly are, more's the pity for the rest of us.
Manners, your colleague doubtless points out, are artificial. So are other forms of learned behavior, such as literacy, toilet training and, indeed, civilization itself.
You are quite right that such people are hoping that you will crack. It would be kinder to commiserate with them for having such a dismal view of humanity.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with my roommate after we had been to our first real college party, where nearly everyone got drunk, I had a big argument with my boyfriend at the time, and there was a fair amount of debauchery for our small Catholic school (though terribly tame in the eyes of most of the world). I was a little shocked at how thoughtless, indulgent and strange everyone became after copious amounts of alcohol--I was prepared for people to go crazy, do silly/stupid things, and be loud and rambunctious, but this was entirely different: they were entirely different people.
Some might say that was the 'real' person coming out after alcohol let down their inhibiations--but my roommate and I disagreed heartily. Why is it vices that seems more real? I'd like to think it's the other way around. It is the day to day struggle in virtue that is truly real.
For the record, I was a tad disappointed in Miss Manner's answer--the last line, that is--but, as I've argued many times with Boy Wonder, she's not a ethicist, she's only writting about ettiquette. Manners are "artificial", but they do reflect something about the moral struggle of men. Still, I don't know what I'd say in such a situation that wouldn't give the accuser the upper-hand, except, perhaps, "Please excuse me, that was rude."