Politeness is one of the most underrated skills I know. Even knowing that, I continually underrate it myself.
The word ‘polite’ makes me think of ‘table manners’ and ‘finishing school.’ I equate it with place settings and buttoned up shirts. It feels outdated somehow. Who puts ‘polite’ at the top of their list of self traits?
Would you strive to be exceptionally polite?
Although ‘polite’ and ‘proper’ are two similar words that aren’t exactly the same, they overlap, which makes me politeness only seem good up to a point. Saying please and thank you is good; keeping your elbows off the table is boring. When someone holds a door for me, that’s nice; when someone reprimands me for holding a fork ‘like a shovel’- that’s not so nice (this has happened in my adult life).
Am I polite? I try to be. I give up my seat when I see pregnant women on trains. I hold the door for the person behind me. ‘Please and ‘thank you,’ are regular parts of my vocabulary, as is the phrase “I’m sorry” (probably to an overblown extent). I try not to push tourists when they stop on the street for a photo.
But is that the extent of politeness? I read this article the other day called ‘How To Be Polite’ (which, from the title alone, I already thought was a bizarre, ‘too proper’ sounding article) that ended up broadly expanding upon politeness in a very surprising way.
The author describes his politeness as being way more than just well-mannered. He makes sure whoever he’s talking to in a conversation is heard. He asks probing questions and lets the other person talk while he truly listens. He writes emails of apology if he believes he’s wronged someone and believes in giving people second chances… even if he hated them the first time he met them. And if he hated them the first time, he’s polite enough that they’d never know. He also believes in virtually invisible politeness- never being polite in a showy way, but instead weaving it subtly through his interactions.
For him, politeness is really respecting other people- treating them as you’d want to be treated yourself. It becomes holding yourself to a certain standard, but not necessarily expecting that standard back from others. Because you never know what’s really happening in someone’s life:
“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.”
Perhaps politeness isn’t outdated and stodgy at all, but is something that desperately needs to to be rethought and brought back to life. If politeness was equated with second chances and empathy, with listening and not asking for anything in return, it can become a trait of very high value.
And maybe we just need to claim politeness as an important trait and build upon it. I’ve always been extremely empathetic, and I’m a pretty great listener, though not to the extent of the author in his conversations:
“I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy. For all of my irony I really do want to know about the process of hanging jewelry from celebrities. What does the jewelry feel like in your hand? What do the celebrities feel like in your hand? Which one is more smooth?”
That’s a lot, but it would be nice to feel that way! Politely overwhelmed with love and empathy for others! Politely full of a curious passion for the stories people tell! Even if they’re boring. Even if you hate them at first. When I think of politeness, that’s how I want to feel!
What if the word ‘polite’ went beyond ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and equated itself with curiosity, love, and second chances? I’ve already newly adjusted it into my vocabulary.