Stop Being So Polite

Whenever I’m expressing heartfelt thanks to you, I don’t want you to tell me it was “no big deal”—not if it was a big deal for you to help me.

Whenever I’m genuinely apologizing to you for something hurtful, don’t tell me not to worry about it.

Whenever I give you a compliment, don’t thank me for my “kind words” or tell me you “feel flattered.” If what I express is genuine, then I’m not saying it out of kindness or flattery—I’m saying it out of honesty.

Whenever I’m confiding in you about something that’s upsetting me, don’t tell me that it’s nothing to worry about, even if it’s the most trivial thing in the world. Don’t tell me that you’re “sorry to hear that” either, just because that’s what you’re supposed to say.

If you’re going to do nothing but regurgitate pre-programmed responses, then I might as well be talking to a robot.

I want to know how you really feel about it. Tell me that you’re glad I noticed how much work you put into something. Let me know that you felt warm and fuzzy when I told you that. If you felt hurt or sad, express that too. If you forgive me for having hurt you, then let me know. If you’re unable to forgive me because you think I’ll hurt you again, tell me that too. You can even tell me that you’re at a loss for words.

All of the above responses have one thing in common: they dismiss my emotions, treating them as misguided and insignificant. The thing is, there’s no such thing as a wrong emotion. All genuine feelings flow naturally from events and causes. While they can be expressed in unhealthy ways, on their own there is nothing wrong with them. Dismissing them doesn’t make them go away, either. It merely shoves them out of your path so they can resurface in some other way.

So when you tell someone that what they feel strongly about is “no big deal” or nothing more than “kind words,” that communicates that what they feel doesn’t matter. It will likely discourage them from sharing their feelings with you in the future if they feel that they won’t be valued.

Being guilty of this myself, I understand that most people don’t respond like this with bad intentions. I think there are two reasons people make these mistakes.

1) It’s hard to respond with sincerity, because it puts you in a vulnerable position. The listener might dismiss your emotions or use them against you.

2) Etiquette. As children, we learn that we can only express certain sentiments if we want to be accepted. In the name of politeness, we are taught that we must censor the feelings we have that are inconvenient to those in authority. Thus we fall into ruts of predictable conversation in order to protect ourselves from punishment.

But as adults, we no longer have to live to appease authority figures (assuming you’re not in a job where you do—if you are, get out.) We can now escape the shackles of our history and cultivate the habits that serve us best. When speaking with people who are close to us, we can make the effort to abandon the Script of Etiquette and choose to speak from the heart.

The world would be a much better place if we could simply express our true feelings.

7 thoughts on “Stop Being So Polite”

  1. I don’t know… you’re right, of course, to some extent. But this is something I think a lot about, because conversation is fascinating and complicated–it’s like an elaborate game or art, but there aren’t a set of rules you can memorize and become an expert in. Conversation of any kind is a “soft skill”–and you learn it by doing it with different people, and by doing it wrong a lot. It’s also like a code, because what we say is only half the story; partly because we don’t always instantly know what we mean or feel, partly because we don’t always know where the other person is coming from, and partly because a lot of our meaning comes out in body language. Language exchange of any kind, if it’s worth anything, is about figuring each other out and figuring out what we actually do mean, and that takes time, not a 10-minute exchange.

    I find that you can’t really have good conversation, and really start to dig into what people feel and what they mean, without having lots of time with them. A dinner party, an evening of wine and cheese, a long bus-ride… it’s rare that the short conversation reveals much that’s worthwhile, and I think people instinctively feel that when they give short, fake responses. They might just not be willing to enter into the game at the moment, or not have the time or energy, or not know how.

    So we speak in code-speak, and you’re right, a lot of it is superficial and false. But the fault of that is hard to pin on any one reason or person. The people I care most about and want most to be genuine with are often the ones I come away from feeling like our conversation failed.

    1. You’re absolutely right–I don’t think communication like this is usually possible in professional interactions or short exchanges with strangers. I was mostly referring to the ways we communicate with friends and people who are or could be close to us. I know I still fall into these habits all the time, and I’m trying to change them.

  2. This is only vaguely related, but if you’re ever at a loss for post ideas, I’d be interested to hear how your talking to strangers habit has been working out, and in what contexts you get more nontrivial responses.

  3. Woah, I loved this piece! I can relate so much. It’s really frustrating talking with robots and brick walls. On the one hand, I can understand that being vulnerable is scary. But on the other hand, COME ON. haha

    You already know this, but seriously. The most valuable, energizing, and memorable interactions I’ve had have been the ones with the deepest and most unfounded moments of trust and vulnerability. But it’s so hard to find people who actually have the confidence or courage to open up — and even just people who appreciate my opening up.

    I’ve had success with being the first one to “make a move” so to speak. But it’s generally still a toss up. Some relationships turn out to be very rewarding and meaningful while others just remain pleasant and fluffy. Oh well. One of life’s great adventures, I suppose!

    Thanks for writing this post! It was beautifully written and filled to the brim with truth.

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