A Primer on Politeness

[I originally wrote this as a helpful guide to a friend who was constantly getting stuck in unnecessary altercations]

Politeness As A Way Of Life

People often mistake politeness to be a manner of speaking. Politeness is actually a way of life that dictates everything from our acceptance in society to our quality of our relationships to our sense of serenity and well being. Politeness can be translated into actions that affect every aspect of our lives and day to day interactions, but the impact of politeness is most relevant in our communications and interactions with our fellow beings. Being polite does not mean to speak softly or to forgive every mistake, but it is to deal with the conversations and situations in a manner that is respectful and smart and mindful of the presence and desires of the other person. The art of being polite has a long term impact on one’s ego and behaviour and is transition to politeness is almost always permanent. Also, it is not an attribute that is compatible with all personality styles and more than likely you will run into people that will find it near impossible to adopt even an inkling of politeness.

Agree, Then Disagree

I am no expert on the matter, but from my experience, when we hear something, we have usually in the first few seconds already agreed or disagreed with the statement that we have heard. Even as there are words still to reach our ears, our brains have put the sentence through a complex lattice of facts, past experiences and existential principals at blinding speed to produce positive or negative indicators. I look at this process as a reflex action, not as an intentional action, because we as humans have thrived through the most daunting of calamities by the mere force of out-thinking our enemies. The impulse to disagree or agree will typically immediately manifest itself through the shaking of our heads, the salivation of our tongues to remit a response, the immediate change in our facial expression and through indirect adjustments in body posture. A negative response will typically make itself evident faster because subconsciously we want to subdue our perceived opponent as quickly as possible. Reflex actions such as this tend to take significantly longer to modify than non-reflex actions because we are essentially trying to stray from what our genetic make-up tells us to do. In many a person, such changes are certain to take in excess of several decades of practice.

The control that one has on that immediate reflex action is what differentiates a normal listener from a polite listener. There are three actions that are most crucial for a polite listener to perform in order to set the stage for a successful outcome. First, the polite listener will visibly agree to whatever he hears. Note that I said visibly agree, not irrevocably agree. The difference is that a visible agreement is simply an acknowledgement without actual agreement which gives leeway for both participants to take the conversation in a fruitful direction. The simplest form of visual agreement is nodding the head or uttering an exclamation. It takes much improvisation and subjugation of one’s ego to do this initially and you will find that you almost have to force yourself to comply. But over time, as I will explain later, the long term benefits of doing so will become clear and precise.  Second, the polite listener will not interject the speaker while still speaking and will let the speaker complete their sentences in full. Being interrupted is not only impolite but also disrespectful. By interjecting, we are indirectly implying that the rest of their words are not worthy of being spoken. For the best effect, it is recommended that there always be a pause of about two seconds after the speaker has completed so that both sides have adequate time for contemplation and assimilation. By performing these two actions, the polite listener has not only prevented himself from being hasty but also established favour with the speaker. Because you have made no indication of disagreement, the speaker will automatically assume that you have no intention to immediately rebut their assertion. Third, and most important, start your response with a neutrally positive phrase. I cannot stress enough about the importance of doing this. This is the whole essence of the concept of agreeing before disagreeing. Examples of neutrally positive phrases include, “You have a good point”, “That makes sense”, “I think you may be right”, “I didn’t look at it this way”, “That’s what xxx person also said”, and “It’s very possible that that might be the case”. Neutral phrases produce a positive perception without you having to succumb to giving in to a less than favourable position. Most people don’t know about or don’t understand the impact of positively neutral phrases, but I can assure you, my good friend, that these are the most important phrases that you could ever learn.

The above three things take at most a few additional seconds in a conversation, but can change the outcome dramatically. It doesn’t matter how right or wrong a person is, and what the extent of the correction is, what matters to people is how they perceive themselves being corrected. If they are corrected in a positive tone, they will amicably accept the outcome and will hold no contempt for the corrector, but if they are corrected in a condescending or rude manner they will leave with a feeling of ill will and scorn. Agreeing before disagreeing is a very powerful concept that can become the best friend of a good communicator.

Working With Facts

It is most common for us think what applies to one type of information applies to all. In my view, there are three basic types of conversational data that will typically produce disagreements – facts, assertions and preferences. Facts, for the purpose of this discussion, are simply uninterpreted truths that are easily verifiable through a third party. The universe of facts is so large and so sparsely documented that it is natural for us to only know and remember a very tiny portion of the facts that we have been exposed to. If someone states a fact incorrectly, and you know it is incorrect, you will have noticed by now how much pleasure it gives us to utter the words “You are wrong”. If there is one thing we all dislike, it is to be told that we are wrong for it hurts our ego with directed precision. The instant someone is told they are wrong, a series of chemical reactions will trigger in their brain, and almost immediately their brain will start formulating a defence mechanism going to the extent of inventing bogus evidence.

There is no one clear route to refute facts. It is based on the situation and context of the two parties. It is based on the existing perception and repute that each party has with each other. If one is well versed in a particular area of knowledge, they are more likely to be trusted with facts. However, when the extent of the one’s inherent knowledge in uncertain, the best way of refuting a claim is by simply saying you are not sure either and referring to a third party like google or a book/document/email. By deferring the duty of proving something to a third party, you are removing yourself from the equation and thereby relieving yourself from becoming the winner of said debate. As mentioned earlier, these techniques are not necessarily applicable in a professional environment where it is important to assert a certain level of structure and command that is based on seniority, output and financial incentive. The suggestions in this section are more applicable towards personal relationships and interactions.

Handling Assertions

Assertions are basically generic statements that are not easily verifiable and hence based on one’s recollection or assumptions. When disagreeing about assertions, let me tell you, that there are absolutely no winners and no losers. So in my sincere opinion, it is best not to disagree about assertions in the first place. Simply, prefix any assertion with “I believe that”, or “I think”, or “My best guess is that” and automatically the other party will refrain from disagreeing with you. If you are not one that leaves no room for error, then simply first start with the facts and assumptions that you are basing your assertion on, before even stating your assertion. By reciting your chain of thought, you are putting the impetus on the other party to first invalidate your said assumptions and facts before disagreeing with your eventual assertion. Most people in reality act in reverse, first stating the assertion and then disclosing the path that led to the assertion when questioned. By simply changing the order, the entire conversation is being guided into a direction that is aligned with the normal process of logic and deduction.

In most cases, assertions are simply very difficult to validate because of the “he said she said” that is typically involved in them. With that in mind, I would ask you, my friend, from trying to establish truer versions of others’ statements. The best way to lead a dialogue of assertions is to simply force it to an end as quickly as possible. The polite conversationalist will usually not engage in exchange of assertions when not in possession of an adequate set of facts to easily back it up. And when such engagement is inevitable, the polite person would be the first one to bow out of the exchange. Excusing yourself is not a sign of retreat but a sign of sophistication and restraint. Disagreements based on assertions tend to be the easiest leads into major altercations because of their inherent ambiguity.

Imposing Preferences

The communication of preferences typically tends to be the most difficult or the most easiest to perform based on the other party in question. Preferences are personal and preferences are basically developed and honed over time based on consistent trials and validations. However, preferences being personal and tied innately to the person also tend to be the hardest to satisfy because they are most likely a direct trade-off with the preference of the other party. You like tomatoes, I like potatoes, now what – should we look for a hybrid of the two vegetables. How about finding a recipe that incorporates both ingredients. That’s a challenge too because the recipes that incorporate both tend to be less desirable than the ones that include just one of them. Would it be then destined that the only solution would be for both parties to compromise and consume something that both don’t approve of.

Now that the conundrum with preferences is explained, lets explore a few solutions. First, the simplest solution – simply reject your own choice and adopt that of the other party. This practice, in colloquial times, is called sacrifice. I recommend that if the other person’s preference is new and has not yet been explored, commit to the act of sacrifice. If anything, it is at least an adventure in choice. Plus you can revel in the fact that you were the one that made the choice and that the other party would now be obligated to repay your “sacrifice”. The key is to make it clear that what you are performing is indeed a “sacrifice” and not necessarily your preferred choice. Another solution is to

Let Curiosity Get The Better Of You

The polite listener will always give the speaker the benefit of doubt. He will taken upon himself to contemplate “what if” the other person is right and “how did” this person arrive at this thought. Behind every sentence that is uttered by anybody, there is a long chain of events, experiences and shaped their thinking that somehow led to those particular words and those particular thoughts. I assure you, everything that we say and do, we don’t do because of random chains of chemical reactions in our brains, but because we have been programmed to say or do. This programming is a result of scores of years of external indications and influences from a plethora of environmental sources that are somewhat beyond our control. If you were born in a monastery, you would think and act like a monk. If you were born in a slum, you inherently will evaluate the monetary implication of every action you take. Your upbringing and your exposure to philosophy has more than likely been beyond your control. This is what makes each of us special – we are not just a collection of lines in a resume, but we are the insanely complex product of decades of thousands of experiences and probably millions of tiny interactions. What makes us special and uniquely different also makes us vulnerable to differences of opinion and preference. I urge you, welcome this difference, welcome the unique perspective that people provide, and let your curiosity get the better of you. In doing so, you will open your world to a influx of new knowledge and perspective. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have learned something new by simply letting my guard down for a fleeting second. Even on subjects on which I thought I was an authority, I have found myself corrected and even better informed each time I take a chance with someone else’s information.

A long time ago, there used to be a generation of people that would have meaningful debates and discussions without letting egos get in the way. The open exchange of ideas let to fruitful relationships and interesting interactions when the company of others was the only thing people lived by. With no self-reinforcing loops through televisions and internet, people sought out knowledge and discussion as both – a means of self-enhancement as well as entertainment. We are today more insightful and wiser than ever through our abundant access to knowledge and stories, but this excess of knowledge has also made us kingpins of our own domains – essentially transformed us into specialists from generalists. And it inadvertently forces us to seek out people and sources with similar and complimentary viewpoints, further diminishing our desire to seek out opposing or different viewpoints. A modicum of curiosity about other people’s thoughts will give an immensely refreshing insight into the thoughts of your fellow human and will make you a better individual as well as a more compassionate one.



One Response

  1. Ravish
    Ravish 25 June, 2013 at 10:49 am | | Reply


Leave a Reply