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Are We Killing Politeness?

One of the many casualties of our changing culture seems to be politeness. When the President of the United States is the poster child for rude behavior, it’s tough for politeness to survive. This is especially true in the no-holds-barred, digitally distanced world of social media.

I consider myself to be reasonably polite. Being so, I also expect this in others. Mild rudeness makes me anxious. Excessive rudeness makes me angry. This being the case, I am troubled by the apparent decline of civility. So today I wanted to take a look at politeness and why it might be slipping away from us.

First of all, we have to understand the politeness is not universal. What is considered polite in one culture is not in another.

Secondly, being polite is not the same as being friendly. Or empathetic. Or being respectful of others. Or being compassionate, according to this post  from The Conversation. There is a question of degree and intent here. Being polite is a rather unique behavior that encompasses both desirable and less desirable qualities. And that begs the question: What is the purpose of politeness? Is a less-polite world a good or a bad thing?

First, let’s look at the origin of the world. It comes from the Latin “politus,” meaning “polished — made smooth.” Just in case you’re wondering, “politics” does not come from the same root. That comes from the Greek word for “citizen” — “polites.”

One last etymological nugget. The closest comparison to polite may be “nice,” which originates from the Latin “nescius,” meaning “ignorant”. Take that for what it’s worth.

This idea of politeness as a type of social “polish” really comes from Europe — and especially Britain. There, politeness was linked with class hierarchies. Being polite was a sign of good breeding — a dividing line between the high-born and the riffraff. This class-bound definition came along with the transference of the concept to North America.

Canada is typically considered one of the most polite nations in the world. As a Canadian who has traveled a fair amount, I would say that’s probably true.

But again, there are variations in the concept of politeness and how it applies to both Canadians and Americans.

When we consider the British definition of politeness, you begin to see how Americans and Canadians might respond differently to it. To understand that is to understand much of what makes up our respective characters.

As a Canadian doing much of my business in the U.S. for many years, I was always struck by the difference in approaches I found north and south of the 49th parallel. Canadians businesses we met with were unfailingly polite, but seldom bought anything. Negotiating the prospect path in Canada was a long and often frustrating journey.

American businesses were much more likely to sign a contract. On the whole, I would also say they were friendlier in a more open and less-guarded way. I have to admit that in a business setting, I preferred the American approach.

According to anthropologists Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, who have extensively researched politeness, there is negative and positive politeness. Negative politeness is concern with adhering to social norms, often by deferring to someone or something else.

This is Canadian politeness personified. Our entire history is one of deference to greater powers, first to our colonial masters — the British and French — and, more recently, from our proximity to the cultural and economic master that is the U.S.

For Canadians, deferral is survival. As former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said about the U.S., “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Negative politeness is a way to smooth out social friction, but there is good and bad here. Ideally it should establish a baseline of trust, respect and social capital. But ultimately, politeness is a consensus of compromise.  And that’s why Canadians are so good at it.  Negative politeness wants everything to be fair.

But then there is positive politeness, which is more American in tone and nature. This is a desire to help others, making it more closely linked to compassion. But in this noble motive there is also a unilateral defining of what is right and wrong. Positive politeness tries to make everything right, based on the protagonist’s definition of what that is.

The two sides of politeness actually come from different parts of the brain. Negative politeness comes from the part of the brain that governs aggression. It is all about applying brakes to our natural instincts. But positive politeness comes from the part of the brain that regulates social bonding and affiliation.

When you understand this, you understand the difference between Canadians and Americans in what we consider polite. For the former, our definition comes handed down from the British class-linked origins, and has morphed into a culture of compromise and deferral.

The American definition comes from many generations of being the de facto moral leaders of the free world.

We (Canadians) want to be nice. You (Americans) want to be right. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they are also not the same thing. Not by a long shot.

What Trump has done (with a certain kind of perverse genius) has played on this national baseline of compassion. He has wantonly discarded any vestiges of politeness and split the nation on what it means to be right.

But by eliminating politeness, you have also eliminated that governor of our behavior. Reactions about what is right and wrong are now immediate, rough and unfiltered.

The polish that politeness brings — that deferral of spoken judgement for even a brief moment in order to foster cooperation — is gone. We have no opportunity to consider other perspectives. We have no motive to cooperate. This is abundantly apparent on every social media platform.

In game theory, politeness is a highly successful strategy commonly called “tit for tat.” It starts from assuming a default position of fairness from the other party, continuing to cooperate if this proves to be true, and escalating to retaliation if it’s not. But this tactic evolved in a world of face-to-face encounters. Somehow, it seems less needed in a divided world where rudeness and immediate judgement are the norm.

Still, I will cling to my notions of politeness. Yes, sometimes it seems to get in the way of definitive action. But on the whole, I would rather live in a world that’s a little nicer and a little more polite, even if that seems foolish to some of you.