Politeness as a life strategy

One of the secrets of what success I had in 40 years as a newspaper reporter was this:  Trying to be as pleasant and helpful as I conveniently could to everyone I met.

ALittlePolitenessGoesALongWay-23618This was not altruism or even compassion, but enlightened self-interest.   I never knew when I might encounter that person again, and might need them for information or even for a handy quote.

If I did favors for people, however minor, they might remember if I ever asked them for something.  And if I built up a backlog of goodwill, this would give me a buffer when I wrote something that offended someone.

This was in keeping with the Gospel injunction to cast your bread upon the waters, in hope they will be returned to you.

Even if there wasn’t a payoff, being pleasant to people did not involve any sacrifice of anything of vital importance, and led to a more pleasant life for me than being quarrelsome or contentious would have.

I was reminded of this when I read an on-line essay, How to Be Polite, by a writer named Paul Ford who follows the same life strategy.

Sometimes I’ll get a call or email from someone five years after the last contact and I’ll think, oh right, I hated that person.  But they would never have known, of course.  Let’s see if I still hate them.  Very often I find that I don’t.  Or that I hated them for a dumb reason.  Or that they were having a bad day.  Or much more likely, that I had been having a bad day.

People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things.  They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension.  They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy-League educations, and self-loathing.  They suffer from failing marriages, physical pain, and publishing.

The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same.  And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment.  I know that doesn’t sound like liberation, because we live and work in an opinion-based economy.  But it is.  Not having an opinion means not having an obligation.  And not being obligated is one of the sweetest of life’s riches.

via Medium.

I have a good friend who says that good luck comes to those who strike up conversations while standing in line.  What he meant was that the more you make connections with people, the more opportunities you are likely to hear about.   I think that’s true.

Unlike my friend, I still find it difficult to make small talk.  I wish I had known the following rule of thumb.

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living.  And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it.  I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through.

Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”  Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. 

I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson.  She kept touching me as she talked.  I forgave her for that.  I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name.  Eventually someone pulled me back into the party.  The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!”

via Medium.

politeness.ninjaAll this is different from following rules of etiquette, but there’s nothing wrong with etiquette.  I like Judith Martin’s Miss Manners column in the Washington Post.  She provides good guidance on what to do in different situations and particularly on ways to stand up for yourself without giving offense.  Machiavelli wrote that people will forgive an injury more readily than they will forgive an insult.  The better you understand etiquette, the less likely you will be to insult someone unintentionally.

Foreigners sometimes criticize Americans for smiling too much.  They say that the insincere American smile conceals lack of real feeling.  On the contrary, acting cheerful and being helpful when you’re not in the mood is a good thing, not a bad thing.  It may help you make friends.  Whether it does or not, it helps make life bearable.

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2 Responses to “Politeness as a life strategy”

  1. simonandfinn Says:

    Really enjoyed this post. Thank you!


  2. Deb Meeker Says:

    Now when I tell somewhat what I do for a living, and they say “Wow that sounds hard!” I’ll know they read Paul Ford – or your blog! Thanks, this was fun and educational.


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