Politeness (noun): behavior that is respectful and considerate of other people.
Synonyms: courtesy, civility, respect, deference, manners, good manners, chivalry, gallantry, gentility, cultivation, grace, tact, tactfulness, consideration, considerateness, thoughtfulness, discretion, diplomacy.
In our frantic and often self-obsessed 21st century existence, it’s easy to think that good old-fashioned manners and politeness have been consigned to history.
The concept of courtesy and behaving considerately isn’t given much attention in a world where it’s seemingly all about ‘me’ and the race to the top.
Polite people are, it seems, becoming an endangered species!
Yet, somewhat ironically, we do still tend to judge people on how polite (or not) they are to us.
An encounter where we feel we’ve been spoken to rudely or treated discourteously can annoy us for some time.
It can even go so far as affecting our mood and the way we handle other situations as our day or week unfolds.
The fact that these experiences resonate so deeply suggests that ‘soft’ social skills such as politeness are actually a fundamental human need.
And it turns out they are…
It’s all rooted in human evolution.
There’s a good reason that these rules of social interaction evolved over the countless millennia of human existence.
They create a cooperative, cohesive social group and contribute to the survival of the species.
All cultures, no matter how remote and different to our own, have manners which are defined by their individual traditions. The rules may be different, but there’ll be a strict code of behavior in place.
That says a lot about how necessary these values must be in maintaining society, doesn’t it?
So, the fact is whether or not you agree with the concept of ‘manners’ on a superficial level, you’ll be judged on them and you’ll judge others in the same way.
Like it or not, our social skills, or lack of them, are a big part of who we are and how we are seen by others.
Different strokes for different folks.
Whilst we’re on the subject of judging, a word of caution about making assumptions and labelling a person’s behavior as rude or discourteous…
Don’t automatically assume, in these globally interconnected times, that others have the same cultural norms as you.
What you consider polite, others may find confusing, upsetting, or even offensive.
Here’s a personal example: I’m a teacher of English to speakers of other languages who’s done her time in the multicultural classroom.
I’ve learned that our cultural obsession with saying ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘sorry’ (often when we don’t mean it at all), is viewed by those from overseas with opinions ranging from disbelief to irritation.
And yet their failure to use these ‘magic’ words when speaking English is seen as rude.
So, the polite thing to do when it comes to intercultural exchanges is not to apply our own politeness criteria to people from different cultures.
The matter of good manners ultimately boils down to showing mutual respect.
If you don’t respect others, then holding a door open for someone or remembering names is just window dressing and means nothing. You’ll still be seen as impolite.
If you show respect to others, they’re more likely to do the same in return.
The Profile Of A Polite Person
The learning of good manners, consideration for others, and being polite begins from the earliest years of our development.
You may have found yourself admiring others who seem to ooze politeness from their core with little apparent effort.
Be assured that it’s not effortless. It’s a pattern of behavior which has been learned over a lifetime and is deeply ingrained.
Maybe you feel your own manners could do with a little brushing up. To be honest, I think we all could do with a little reminder now and then of the right way to behave!
So let’s take a look at some of the things that polite people do and don’t do – in no particular order.
1. They don’t judge others
So, I’ve mentioned the ‘J’ word a couple of times in this piece, but judging is something that a polite person would never do.
How many times have you made a snap judgement about a new acquaintance’s personality or circumstances and had to do a quick U-turn when you’ve got to know them better?
So much simpler, and kinder, to refrain from the urge to judge in the first place.
2. They don’t share personal information
A well-mannered person resists the oh-so-human urge to share the intimate details of their life, be they factual or just problematic.
You’ll never catch them talking about how much they earn, for example, and the details of their hemorrhoids will mercifully stay where they belong – tucked away out of sight!
3. They don’t spread or listen to gossip
Being able to reveal some juicy nugget of information about an acquaintance or a work colleague is a sure-fire way to be part of the ‘in’ crowd.
And listening avidly to someone else telling tales means that you’re on the inside track, satisfying the human need to belong…
But only in the short term, because no one trusts a gossip.
Polite people have no interest in this poor behavior and will always turn a deaf ear to gossip, no matter how intriguing the tales may be.
This makes them trustworthy allies. It’s why they tend to keep their friends while others pay the price for gossip-mongering as their friends desert them.
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4. They don’t push their opinions onto others
The loudmouth who constantly pushes their often controversial views on every conversation is never popular.
These opinions are delivered whether they’ve been asked for or not – usually not.
The mark of a polite and courteous individual is to hold back from forcing their own thoughts onto others.
Yes, of course, if asked they will share their opinions, but they’ll be open to different ideas and to having a balanced discussion.
They’ll never insist that you convert to their way of thinking.
5. They don’t brush over important issues
Some people will do anything to avoid the awkwardness of a conversation with someone who’s recently bereaved or whose relationship just imploded or who has endured some other personal trauma.
The well-mannered, on the other hand, will find a way to raise the matter sensitively as soon as possible to avoid prolonging the embarrassment or upset as the unfortunate sufferer waits anxiously for the thorny issue or tragic event to be raised.
It’s never an easy thing to do, but it’s so much kinder to acknowledge upset in the lives of our friends or colleagues rather than ignore it. Polite people respect this.
6. They always express their thanks
Showing sincere appreciation for a gesture, a gift, or hospitality is at the top of the list of things that polite folk do.
You won’t find them firing off a one-liner by email or text to say ‘thanks.’
Neither will they make the assumption that their friend or relation will just ‘know’ that they had a good time or appreciated the gift because they muttered a few words to that effect.
No, a polite individual will always take the time to write a few words on a card and send it the old-fashioned way by snail mail. Or they’ll say thank you in some other meaningful way.
In reality, this takes little time to do but is so much more heartfelt in showing true appreciation. Your stock will go up hugely in the eyes of the recipient, for sure!
7. They’ll put others at ease
When faced with a potentially awkward moment, a polite person will always find a gentle and appropriate way to diffuse any stiffness, shyness, or worry in others.
They will go out of their way to minimize any discomfort felt by others for whatever reason.
You need to be empathetic in order to spot such a situation and this is another common quality of the polite individual.
8. They’re attentive listeners
You won’t catch a polite person glancing at their watch while you’re talking to them or, worse still, looking over your shoulder to see if someone more interesting or ‘useful’ has entered the room.
Neither will you see their eyes glaze over mid conversation. And as for casually checking their phone for social media updates while you’re talking? Never!
Polite people are adept at ‘active listening.’
Not only do they show their full attention by maintaining regular eye contact, they’ll also nod or smile and utter the odd affirmative, so the speaker is confident to continue speaking.
If the subject matter doesn’t thrill them, you’d never know, as they’re also adept at redirecting the conversation with such subtlety that you won’t even notice!
9. They let you talk about yourself
An extension of the active listening technique is the polite person’s ability to ask intelligent and relevant questions about you.
Let’s face it, it’s usually our favorite subject.
If someone lets you talk for ages about your achievements or the ups and downs in your life and really appears to be interested, then it’s a great conversation, right?
It’s only when you’re basking in the glow of having enjoyed the interaction with that super-nice individual, that you’ll realize you know almost nothing about them while they’ve heard your life story.
10. They won’t forget your name
This is an obvious one. We all know it’s good manners to address others by name (the right one!).
Some of us blame a poor memory for our failure to do this, but, in truth, it isn’t that hard to pay attention when introductions are made.
It’s also okay to ask again if you didn’t quite catch the name the first time. Better that than be caught out when you have to introduce that person to someone else and you just haven’t a clue.
You’ll probably have noticed that the unfailingly polite person will repeat your name back to you in the course of conversation.
It’s not a tactic to be over-used as it can be irritating, but a useful tool to drill a name into your memory nonetheless.
The best things in life are free.
There’s a very apt Slovenian proverb along the lines of “politeness costs nothing but yields much.”
Although good manners cost nothing, they can make a vast difference to how other people feel about you.
In a business context, that also goes for the organization you are representing, so the rewards that come from being courteous can be both professional as well as personal.
Far from an outdated concept.
In these divisive times, politeness, courtesy, and all those other synonyms above have never been more important.
I mentioned above how an encounter with someone who’s rude and unmannerly can leave you feeling bruised.
How about considering what makes an exchange with a fellow human memorable in a good way?
Yes, almost always politeness, consideration, mutual respect, thoughtfulness – I could go on…
Reap the benefits of politeness.
It all comes down to following the timeless advice to “do unto others as you would have them do to you.”
And the great thing about being polite and courteous is that others are more likely to be polite and courteous in return, so you really do reap what you sow.
I’ll leave the final word to Roy T. Bennett, motivational author of The Light in the Heart:
Treat everyone with politeness and kindness, not because they are nice, but because you are.