Wall Street Journal columnist Elizabeth Bernstein has managed to find a psychology professor who does not understand politeness. One likes to think that it required some serious searching. One suspects that it did not.
According to James Pennebaker, chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas at Austin:
"Politeness is another word for deception. The point is to formalize social relations so you don't have to reveal your true self…. if you're going to lie, it's a good way to do it—because you're not really lying. So it softens the blow.
Unfortunately, coming from a scientists this will pass, for most readers, as a scientific fact. In truth, it’s nonsense.
Besides, Miss Manners would never approve.
What makes politeness synonymous with deception? Isn’t it possible to be polite because you respect someone or because you prefer to have harmonious interactions.
Even if heart is filled with dark and discourteous musings, isn’t it better to keep them to yourself?
As I once wrote: If you want to build character, it’s better to pretend that you have it than to prove that you don’t.
And, what does Pennebaker mean when he suggests that you should be revealing your true self? A minimum of reflection will tell you that you can reveal some things to some people and other things to other people. It depends on who you are, who the other person is, the nature of your relationship… and so on.
There is no universal rule about what you should or should not reveal to friends and/or family.
In some situations you will rightly use some conversational lubricant in order to soften negative criticism. This is especially the case when you feel duty-bound to offer bad news.
When you open a statement with the lubricant: “Please don’t take this the wrong way,” only to follow with… “but you look hideous in that outfit” you are delivering bad news softly.
Yet, Bernstein and Pennebaker would say that that, lubricant aside, the speaker has committed an act of verbal hostility. The hostility, however, has nothing to do with the lubricant; it is a function of the infelicitous working of the judgment. It is better to choose a more tactful expression: “Please don't take this the wrong way, but that outfit does not show you at your best” or “I think you look better in the pink taffeta skirt.
I would emphasize that some people ought to tell a woman that she does not look very good in what she is wearing while other people should never offer a negative opinion of her appearance.
When impoliteness is covered by false politeness, you cannot solve the problem by revealing your true self, especially if that involves expressing obnoxious views tactlessly. The true cure for impoliteness masquerading as politeness is more, not less politeness.
If people today are using larger quantities of this conversational lubrication, one reason might be that eminent experts have told them that they should be open and honest and authentic in expressing their feelings.
Yet, Bernstein notes that conversational lubricants do not always prepare for bad news. And they are not always a prelude to dishonesty.
… taken alone, they express a simple thought, such as "I am writing to say…" At first, they seem harmless, formal, maybe even polite. But coming before another statement, they often signal that bad news, or even some dishonesty on the part of the speaker, will follow.
When members of Congress make pro forma gestures of respect toward their distinguished colleague, they are saying that people with different opinions can still respect each other.
In an incisive article Jezebelle Madeleine Davies critiqued both Pennebaker and Bernstein for confusing the fake politeness that tries to cover rudeness with true politeness.
This is fake politeness. It's bullshit. It's nasty. It's dishonest. But somehow, the experts who Bernstein quotes in her article article manage to apply this dickish fakery to politeness in general:
But what if — and I'm from the midwest so I know these people exist — being polite is your true self? What if you genuinely like being kind and respectful to other people? Frankly, I resent the notion that this could be confused with being fake.
Besides, if your personality is a naturally demanding and selfish one, it's probably good that you act "deceptively" polite. Say "Excuse me" rather than "Get out of my way." Be cooperative, be helpful, it takes a village, you know the rest.
It is better, Davies says, to fake politeness than to show the world how rude you really are. It is better to lubricate a slightly untoward remark than to be open, honest and offensive. Without the lubricant, the remark will feel like a sucker punch. Human conversation is not a knockout game.
Davies recommends that everyone be more polite. She might have toned down her own vocabulary a tad, but the point is well taken. There is no great virtue in stoking conflict and drama. Politeness serves an important social purpose. It facilitates social harmony.
It's through politeness that the world functions properly. (The number of conflicts I've seen that could have been completely avoided had both parties decided to not be huge assholes to each other are COUNTLESS.) Maybe, rather than women deciding to get less polite (which is not to say that they shouldn't get more assertive), everyone — men and women — should decide to get MORE polite. Here's an easy rule to live by: Ask nicely first. When that doesn't work, become the bad boss bitch that you know you are and get what you need.
Even Bernstein, after quoting the expert Dr. Pennebaker, finds another authority whose point of view is more judicious and tempered. Communications trainer Ellen Jovin notes that if people feel compelled to derogate and demean other people, and if they try to get away with it by using negative politeness, they should consider whether they are being too harsh and too critical.
"If you are feeling a need to use them a lot, then perhaps you should consider the possibility that you are saying too many unpleasant things to or about other people," says Ellen Jovin, co-founder of Syntaxis, a communication-skills training firm in New York. She considers some tee-up phrases to be worse than others. "Don't take this the wrong way…" is "ungracious," she says. "It is a doomed attempt to evade the consequences of a comment."
Her advice is either to abort your speaking mission and think about whether what you wanted to say is something you should say, or to say what you want to say without using the phrase. "Eliminating it will automatically force you to find other more productive ways to be diplomatic," Ms. Jovin says.