Do you remember your parents teaching you to be polite? I know my parents did, but I never really put their instruction into context (I just assumed it was the right thing to do, along with hundreds of other things on the “right things to do” list).
This topic was brought to my attention in a recent post written by Paul Ford on Medium. If you’ve never paid a visit to Medium, it’s worth a look-- especially if you have an interest in how technology impacts pop culture.
In his blog, Paul tells a great story about how politeness has served him well in both his professional and personal life. Here’s a brief excerpt from his post:
Most people don’t notice I’m polite, which is sort of the point. I don’t look polite. I am big and droopy and need a haircut. No soul would associate me with watercress sandwiches. Still, every year or so someone takes me aside and says, you actually are weirdly polite, aren’t you? And I always thrill. They noticed.
The complimenters don’t always formulate it so gently. For example, two years ago at the end of an arduous corporate project, slowly turning a thousand red squares in a spreadsheet to yellow, then green, my officemate turned to me and said: “I thought you were a terrible [suck up] when we started working together.” She paused and frowned. “But it actually helped get things done. It was a strategy.” (That is how an impolite person gives a compliment. Which I gladly accepted.) She was surprised to see the stubborn power of politeness over time.
The lesson Ford teaches about politeness is both simple and profound.
It really boils down to one basic principle: Listening and showing empathy towards those around you.
I’m sure that most of you would agree this is a good idea, but how do you apply this principle in the context of being polite? Ford shares a couple of examples in his article. This is my favorite:
Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely.
When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it.
I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”
Notice the empathy comes after the listening. It doesn’t work the other way around. It’s the combination of the two functions (in the correct order) that integrates to produce politeness and all of its wonderful benefits
Ford goes on to tell a few more stories and further substantiates the principle. It’s a long article, but worth reading if you have more interest in this topic. Be warned, it’s a little more edgy than I would normally suggest, but the underlying message is sound and worth considering.
As a final point, focusing on politeness for what it can do for you may sound manipulative. I suppose in the wrong hands it could be used that way.
But, Ford suggests that true politeness is always rooted in sincere concern for others. He has observed that the framework of the human condition is what makes politeness so unique:
People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing. They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing.
The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment.
I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy. But it is. Not having an opinion means not having an obligation. And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.
In this context, being polite is a high calling that very few self-focused manipulators will have the perseverance to accomplish over time. To me, it seems politeness is reserved for those who truly care about the wellbeing of others. That’s a high calling we all should pursue.