For most of human history, the idea of being ‘polite’ has been central to our sense of what is required to count as a good and civilised person. But more recently, politeness has come under suspicion. While we may not outright reject it, it’s not a word we now instinctively reach for when we want to explain why we like or admire someone. ‘Politeness’ can sometimes even carry almost the opposite of its traditional connotations, suggesting an offensive or insolent degree of insincerity and inauthenticity. A ‘polite’ person may come to be judged as a bit of a fake – and in their own way, really rather rude.
The rise in our collective suspicion of politeness has a history. Politeness used to be a key thing. In one of the most influential books on manners ever written – The Book of the Courtier by Baldassare Castiglione, published in Italy at the start of the 16th century – politeness was described as the central virtue and the cornerstone of all ethical behaviour. The manual informed its readers in solemn detail about how to dress, hold cutlery, smile, ride a horse and narrate an anecdote. There were some careful words too about how to clear one’s throat and what to do if one felt a sneeze coming on. This was held to be far from trivial. For Castiglione, a high degree of artificiality was the only route to decency.
Yet by the late 18th century the entire approach had been thrown into disrepute. An alternative, Romantic ideal had emerged, in large part driven forward by the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who powerfully redescribed politeness as an indication of servility and outright deceit. What was important for Rousseau was never to hide or moderate emotions and thoughts, but to remain – at all times – fundamentally true to oneself.
Rousseau’s writings generated highly influential new ideals of behaviour – to which we remain heirs. It had once been the well-educated aristocrats of urban France, with their impeccable knowledge of minor aspects of style, who had been thought of as the exemplars of admirable behaviour. Now Rousseau redirected prestige towards a far less familiar and lauded type: the rough peasant farmer who he knew from his walks across the Appenzell region of the Alps – an independent-minded person who could speak his mind, blow his nose loudly if necessary and tell you exactly how things were in plain, unadorned language. This character, rather than the bewigged aristocrat, was to be the new target of social emulation.
The Romantic suspicion of politeness was given a further boost by the increasing role of the United States in global consciousness. In the early 1830s, while travelling around the new nation, the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville noticed how many Americans of all social classes seemed to practice the straightforward, un-nuanced behaviour Rousseau had applauded. These Americans didn’t seem in any way interested in veiling their own feelings and appeared not to imagine why anyone else would either. They spoke very loudly, never wondered if their interlocutors had had enough and quickly called anyone they didn’t like a fool and everyone they approved of a friend.
Being direct and open came to be seen, by the Americans themselves, as one of their chief national virtues – an attitude encapsulated in a climactic line from Gone with the Wind, when Rhett Butler turns to Scarlett O’Hara and tells her exactly how he sees it:
And because America has been the world’s most influential culture for around a century and a half, its attitude towards politeness has been widely and pervasively disseminated around the planet ever since.
What ultimately separates the Polite from the Frank person isn’t really a knowledge of etiquette. The difference doesn’t hang upon considerations of which knife to use at a formal dinner, when to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ and how to word a wedding invitation. It comes down to a contrasting set of beliefs about human nature. The Polite and the Frank person behave differently chiefly because they see the world in highly divergent ways. These are some of the key ideological issues that separate them:
Original Goodness vs. Natural Sin
Frank people believe in the importance of expressing themselves honestly principally because they trust that what they happen to think and feel will always prove to be fundamentally acceptable to the world. Their true sentiments and opinions may, when voiced, be bracing of course – but no worse. These Frank types assume that what is honestly avowed cannot really ever be vindictive, disgusting, tedious or cruel. In this sense, the Frank person sees themselves a little in the way we typically see small children: as blessed by an original and innate goodness.
Even the most etiquette-conscious among us don’t usually think that the strictures of politeness will apply to the very young. We remain interested to hear about whatever may be passing through these diminutive creatures’ minds and stay unalarmed by their awkward moments, infelicities or negative statements. If they say that the pasta is yuk or that the taxi driver has a head like a weird goldfish, it sounds funny rather than wounding. Their habit of addressing their stories to their teddy rather than the adult who is sitting opposite is just a touching sign of their free spiritedness. It doesn’t matter that there is a stain on their T-shirt when they meet a stranger. The Frank person taps into just this child-like optimism in their own uninhibited approach to themselves. Their trust in their basic purity erodes the rationale for editing or self-censorship. They can believe that everything about them will more or less prove fine, whatever they happen to say or do.
The Polite Person, by contrast, proceeds under a catastrophic suspicion of themselves and their impulses. They sense that a great deal of what they feel and want really isn’t very nice. They are indelibly in touch with their darker desires and can sense their fleeting wishes to hurt or humiliate certain people. They know they are sometimes a bit revolting and cannot forget the extent to which they may be offensive and frightening to others. They therefore set out on a deliberate strategy to protect others from what they know is within them. It isn’t lying as such. They merely understand that being ‘themselves’ is a treat they must take enormous pains to spare everyone else from experiencing – especially anyone they claim to care about.
Paradoxically, the polite person who is pessimistic about their own nature, doesn’t in fact end up behaving horribly with anyone. So aware are they of their own dislikable sides, they nimbly minimise their impact upon the world. It is their extraordinary suspicion of themselves that helps them be – in everyday life – uncommonly friendly, trustworthy and kind.
The Stranger is like Me vs. The Stranger is Other
The Frank Person operates with a charming unconscious assumption that other people are at heart pretty much like them; this can make them very clubbable and allows them to create some astonishing intimacies across social barriers at high speed. When they like listening to a particular piece of music at high volume, they will take it as obvious that you probably do as well. Because they are very enthusiastic about spicy food, or never want to add salt to a dish, it doesn’t cross their mind to ask if you actually like this restaurant or would favour a salt cellar on the table. They can tell you about a bodily function or an aspect of their sex life without knowing you too well, because they have faith that we are all – in the end – much the same in our emotions in these areas. They are correspondingly undisturbed by the less obvious clues about some of the dissonant feelings that may be unfolding in the minds of other people: if someone is a bit quiet at a meeting, it doesn’t occur to the Frank Person to worry that they might have said something wrong or badly misjudged the situation.
For their part, the Polite Person starts from the assumption that others are highly likely to be in quite different places internally, whatever the outward signs. Their behaviour is therefore tentative, wary and filled with enquiries. They will explicitly check up with others to take a measure of their experiences and outlook; if they feel cold, they are very alive to the possibility that you may be feeling perfectly warm and so will take trouble to ask if you’d mind if they went over and closed the window. They are aware that you might be annoyed by a joke that they find funny or that you might very sincerely hold political opinions quite at odds with their own. They don’t take what is going on for them as a guide to what is probably going on for you. Their manners are grounded in an acute sense of the gulf that can separate humans from one another.
Robustness vs. Vulnerability
The Frank person works with an underlying sense that other people are internally for the most part extremely robust. Those around them are not felt to be forever on the verge of self-doubt and self-hatred. Their egos are not assumed to be gossamer thin and at perpetual risk of deflating. There is therefore understood to be no need to let out constant small signals of reassurance and affirmation. When you go to someone’s house, the fact that the meal was tasty will be obvious to everyone, not least the person who spent four and a half hours cooking it. There is no need to keep stressing the point in a variety of discrete ways. When one meets an artist, there’s no need to mention that their last work was noticed and appreciated; they’ll know that well enough. And the office junior must have a pretty clear sense that they are making the grade without a need to stop and spell it out. The Frank Person assumes that everyone’s ego is already at least as as big and strong as it should be. They are even likely to suspect that if you praise someone for the little things, you’ll only inflate their self-regard to undue and dangerous proportions.
The Polite person starts from a contrary assumption that all of us are permanently only millimetres away from inner collapse, despair and self-hatred. However confident we may look, we are painfully vulnerable – despite the outward plaudits and recognition – to a sense of being disliked and taken for granted. Every piece of neglect, every silence or slightly harsh or off-the-cuff word has a profound capacity to hurt. All of us are walking around without a skin. The cook, the artist and the office junior will inevitably share in a craving for evidence that what they do and are is OK. Accordingly, the Polite person will be drawn to spend a lot of time noticing and commenting positively on the most apparently minor facets of others’ achievements: they will say that the watercress soup was the best they’ve had for years (and that they’d forgotten how much they liked it); they’ll mention that the ending of the writer’s new novel made them cry and that work on the Mexico deal was particularly helpful to, and noticed by, the whole company. They will know that everyone we come across has a huge capacity to hurt us with what we foolishly and unfairly refer to as ‘small things’.
There’s likely to be an associated underlying difference in attitudes to money and love in the context of work. For the Frank person, money is the crucial ingredient we want from other people in our professional lives. They therefore don’t feel any great need – in service situations for example – to express gratitude or take particular pains to create a semblance of equality with an employee. The waiter or the person at the car-hire desk has (they feel) no special need of kindness on top of the money they will already be getting from the transaction.
Yet the Polite person knows that we take a lot of ourselves into our jobs and need to find respect and a form of love from them as much as we need the cash. So they will be conscious of an additional need to contribute smiles and a pleasant word or two to the person stamping their passport or changing the bedclothes in the hotel. These people are doing their jobs for the money of course, but payment never invalidates an equally strong emotional hunger for a sense of having been useful and appreciated by another person, however brief and functional the encounter may have looked at first glance.
Grand vs. Small Gestures
The Frank Person is often very kind but in a big way. They are interested in enormous acts of generosity and kindness towards major sections of humanity: perhaps the rescue of the whole continent of Africa or a plan to give every child in the country an equally good start in life. But a consequence of their enthusiasm can be a certain impatience with smaller moves and gestures, which they may view as a distraction from the larger causes. There is really no point, they may feel, in spending time and money sending people flowers, writing notes after a dinner or remembering birthdays – when a fundamental transformation of the human condition is at hand.
The Polite person also passionately cares about spreading kindness, love and goodness on a mass scale, but they are cautious about the chances of doing so on any realistic time horizon. Yet their belief that you perhaps can’t make things a lot better for a huge number of people in the coming decades makes them feel that it is still very much a worthy goal to try and make a modest, minor improvement in the lives of the few humans you do have direct contact with in the here and now. They may never be able to transform another person’s prospects entirely or rescue the species from its agonies, but they can smile and stop for five minutes to chat to a neighbour about the weather. Their modesty around what is possible makes them acutely sensitive to the worth of the little things that can be done before today is over.
Self-Certainty vs. Self-Doubt
The Frank person has a high degree of confidence as to their ability to judge relatively quickly and for the very long-term what is right and wrong about a given situation. They feel they can tell who has behaved well or badly or what the appropriate course of action should be around a dilemma. This is what gives them the confidence to get angry with what strikes them (immediately) as rank stupidity, or to blow up bridges with people they’ve become vexed with, or to state a disagreement emphatically and to call another person stupid, monstrous or a liar to their face. Once they have said something, they know they can’t take it back but they don’t really want to. Part of their frankness is based on the notion that they can understand at speed the merits of any situation, the character of others and the true nature of their own commitments.
The Polite person is much more unsure on all these fronts. They are conscious that what they feel strongly about today might not be what they end up thinking next week. They recognise that ideas that sound very strange or misguided to them can be attempts to state – in garbled forms – concepts that are genuinely important to other people and that they themselves may come around to with time. They see their own minds as having great capacities for error and as being subject to imperceptible moods which will mislead them – and so are keen not to make statements that can’t be taken back or to make enemies of people they might decide are in fact worthy of respect down the line.
The Polite Person will be drawn to deploying softening, tentative language and holding back on criticism wherever possible. They will suggest that an idea might be not quite right. They will say that a project is attractive but that it could be interesting to look at alternatives as well. They will consider that an intellectual opponent may well have a point. They aren’t just lying or dodging tough decisions. Their behaviour is symptomatic of a nuanced and intelligent belief that few ideas are totally without merit, no proposals are one hundred percent wrong and almost no one is entirely foolish. They work with a conception of the world in which good and bad are deviously entangled and in which bits of the truth are always showing up in unfamiliar guises in unexpected people. Their politeness is a logical, careful response to the complexity they identify in themselves and in the world.
Both the Frank and the Polite person have important lessons to teach us. But it may be that at this point in history, it is the distinctive wisdom of the Polite person that is most ripe for rediscovery and articulation – and that may have the most effective power to take the edge off some of the more brutal and counter-productive consequences of our reigning Frank ideology.