Managing Politeness

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Are you usually polite? When are you not? Where do you draw the line?

Are you always polite to those who are polite to you? What about those who are not polite to you? What about those you meet only once? Are you polite to waiters? Are you polite to those who are not polite to waiters?

When does being polite matter more? When is it not recommended?

These are questions that decision makers, managers, and entrepreneurs need to consider. How nice one behaves can also change depending on one’s situation, mood, or experience.

Politeness matters, but it may not lead to the desired results if it isn’t used wisely by the decision makers and understood correctly by the recipients.

It’s nice, yet costly

Politeness isn’t necessarily easy.

  • It takes time. A polite email takes more consideration to write than a relatively impolite message. The polite sender usually tries to empathize with the receiver. This requires time-consuming review.
  • It requires self-control. Knee jerk reactions are usually not at the polite end of the spectrum. This restraint takes energy.
  • It needs to be customized. If one’s politeness is not tailored to the situation or person they are interacting with, it may be deemed insincere. If it’s just for show, one starts to wonder what the “polite” person is really thinking behind their kind face and nice words.

It’s welcome, yet complicated

Politeness has important implications for decisions.

  • What’s polite and what’s not changes from culture to culture and process to process. For instance, a quick and short rejection could be considered more polite than not getting any response at all.
  • Politeness can lead to unwarranted expectations. For instance, a person who is consistently polite may expect others to always reciprocate and feel underappreciated as a result, leading to complications in cooperations.
  • Politeness can be misunderstood as weakness. A person may be incorrectly deemed as a pushover. This can lead the polite party to gradually become less considerate and more transactional, which can hinder win-win outcomes.

It can be purposefully managed

Analyses unsurprisingly suggest that politeness helps sustain longer term cooperation. While its presence may not guarantee effective group dynamics, its absence makes it hard to maintain healthy communications and competent decision making.

Given its costs and complications, politeness needs to be purposefully managed. For instance:

  • Rudeness shouldn’t be rewarded. If impolite customers or employees are given priority over polite ones, then politeness would be discouraged in the subsequent dealings.
  • Leaders could lead by example and collect feedback on their approach to communication in various situations.
  • Certain ground rules about politeness could be established and communicated before entering stressful processes, which would eventually lead to desired and sustainable habits.

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behavioral scientist, co-author of The Myth of Experience

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Emre Soyer

Emre Soyer

behavioral scientist, co-author of The Myth of Experience

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