It can be a polite world after all

I’m polite. All the time? No. For corroboration, ask my present realtor.


But most of the time, I am. It is a way of life, probably part of my nature, and it was how I was raised.

It usually surprises me when someone (including me) chooses not to be polite. The unwarranted use of swear words is one example.

Politeness is actually an academic field of study. And, because human nature is complex, it is even more important as cross-cultural communications become prevelent in a pluralistic world. Simply put, being polite is good business. I’d add that it’s just plain good. If I were a better person, I’m sure it would have created better relations with my realtor. Being polite is important everywhere, all the time: whether meeting someone over lunch, in the conference room, or on the court of play—whether a game of gin rummy or on the golf course.

According to researchers Janny and Arndt (1992), there are two forms of politeness. Tact, which is about saving face. And social politeness.

Other researchers drill further down, differentiating between being polite and being socially appropriate. Paul Grice, the British-educated philosopher of language, formulated what he termed the "cooperative principle":

Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

How’s that again? What I think he’s trying to say has to do with being a good listener, and picking up on social cues to be a polite conversationalist.

Grice divides his own universal principle into four maxims determining human conversation:

Maxim of Quantity
The speaker should make his/her contribution only as informative as is required, i.e., the message should not be more informative as necessary.
Maxim of Quality: The speaker should make his/her contribution one which is true and one which the speaker has adequate evidence for.
Maxim of Relation: The utterances should be relevant.
Maxim of Manner: The speaker should be clear and intelligible, avoid obscurity of expression and ambiguity, and be brief and orderly.

Sometimes I assume that writers and other artists whom I like may share my values. When a good friend recently acknowledged being influenced by Carl Rogers, and asked me about what books and authors I’ve found influential in my work, Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past jumped ahead of philosophers and writers on psychology.

With a little online research, I ran across Edmund White's biography, and was surprised to learn that Proust himself, whose massive novel is all about relationships “thought friendship was valueless and conversation represented the death of the mind, since he believed only passion and suffering could sharpen the powers of observation and the only word of any value was the written.” Oh Marcel, really?

Summing up, being polite can be more complex than it first appears, both inside your head, and out.


Posted by Frank J. Mendelson | Best Practices, Business, Business Communications, Communications | Comments 0 |
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