The Importance of Being Polite for Better  Communication

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The School of Life" by The School of Life. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the importance of being polite? How does being polite improve the quality of communication?

The authors of The School of Life claim that many of us have come to associate being polite with being condescending. However, they say the importance of politeness has been lost due to this inaccurate view. Communicating with politeness, they say, can improve your relationships in many ways.

Read on to learn about the importance of being polite in communication, according to the authors.

The Importance of Being Polite

Today, we view politeness as synonymous with inauthenticity and snobbishness. But The School of Life authors argue that this view is incorrect and that if more people understood the importance of being polite—rather than being frank, which they contrast it against—it would help us all get along better.

What Is Politeness?

For the authors, politeness consists of these behaviors:

  • Avoiding blunt speech because this can be hurtful
  • Respecting that others have different opinions and preferences and asking for those
  • Offering validation and kind words because humans can be emotionally fragile
  • Giving everyday kindness through small gestures
  • Not taking impulsive, decisive action toward others because we may be wrong
Can Politeness and Diplomacy Ever Be Harmful? 

Perhaps a better description of the importance of being polite should include performing the above behaviors at the right times. In certain contexts, the polite behaviors the authors describe can be harmful. 

For example, one writer notes that some doctors are excessively polite when delivering bad news to patients, which may confuse patients or fail to convey the severity of a health problem. In that case, blunt speech would be kinder. Similarly, constantly asking for others’ opinions rather than presenting your own can keep you from making choices, and kindness and courteousness can blind people to oppression

Finally, if you overthink your every decision out of fear of being wrong, you might develop “analysis paralysis,” or extreme confusion and a sense of overwhelm. This could prevent you from taking necessary action against someone else. Performed at the wrong times, politeness can be inauthentic or snobbish—or worse, destructive.

What Is Diplomacy?

The authors also suggest practicing greater diplomacy, which they define as pursuing a goal without upsetting others. Similar to the importance of being polite, there are several reasons why being a diplomat is important for communication, claim the authors:

  • Respect others’ basic needs and humanity. People become defensive when they feel you don’t understand or respect them. A diplomat knows they must demonstrate that they can take the other person’s perspective if they need something from them. 
  • Don’t come across as superior. A diplomat knows that no one likes receiving advice from people who believe themselves to be beyond needing advice. So they couch advice in expressions of how much they struggle with this issue themselves. 
  • Prioritize the relationship over truth-telling. A diplomat knows that sometimes you have to tell small untruths in service of the overall relationship.
  • Don’t take negative reactions personally. Diplomats know that an angry reaction probably comes from fear or hurt. They don’t press an issue when the other person is angry; they’ll bring it up later when the other person will be more amenable to talking about it. 
Comparing Diplomatic Tactics to the Key Qualities of Diplomats

The authors explain the importance of being polite and diplomatic, listing diplomatic tactics that everyone should adopt above, but what qualities are needed in actual diplomats? The ideal characteristics of diplomats differ from the diplomatic traits the authors describe here, but there’s arguably overlap between the two. Let’s look at some of the desired traits of a diplomat and how they stack up against what the authors recommend.

Intercultural communication: Diplomats must be familiar with the culture and history of their host country. It’s important that the diplomat understands and respects the local population and is able to show this. This trait is similar to respecting others’ basic needs and humanity: Only when people feel understood—either culturally or personally—will they open up. 

Professionalism: In this context, professionalism is defined as being analytical and composed: Diplomats must recognize that the issues they’re dealing with are complex and that they should always take time to understand them and respond calmly and humbly during interactions. This is comparable to avoiding coming across as superior: Diplomats never assume they know better than others and thus never sound like they’re talking down at them.

Teamwork: Diplomats must be skilled team players, able to establish good relationships and trust within a team. While this doesn’t necessarily correspond to fibbing in service of preserving a relationship, a team player probably will have to occasionally tell a white lie to a teammate to maintain the team’s overall well-being. 

Resilience: Diplomats must be able to bounce back from setbacks. A big part of being resilient is not taking things personally. When diplomats understand that others’ negative emotions are rarely about them, they can resiliently re-approach someone once they’ve calmed down. 
The Importance of Being Polite for Better Communication

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Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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