How to be polite

I read this essay a few days ago and enjoyed it, thought not quite enough to post about it here. Then I saw it referenced elsewhere, and noticed that it was written by Paul Ford, the programmer and essayist who came up with the fundamental question of the internet.

So OK, it deserves a recommendation. It not only offers an engaging account of how one man became polite and decided he likes it that way, it has some actual concrete advice that I heartily endorse:

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!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

The trick, of course, is having a reliable response ready. But the important part is responding with interest. Over the years I’ve gone from feeling painfully awkward in social gatherings to being able to make small talk with virtually anyone, simply by deciding that any conversation I strike up will be about the other person, not me, and that I will be interested to hear what they have to say.

Of course it helps if you can turn the conversation in a direction that will genuinely interest you. That’s what makes Ford’s canned response so useful—it will not only engage the other person, but they will likely tell you some very interesting reasons why their job is so hard. At some point you won’t really need a canned response, since you will eventually discover that other people really are worth your interest, and you’ll want to know about them enough to figure out on the spot what question can best allow them to open up about their life.

There is one other aspect of my politeness that I am reluctant to mention. But I will. I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy. For all of my irony I really do want to know about the process of hanging jewelry from celebrities. What does the jewelry feel like in your hand? What do the celebrities feel like in your hand? Which one is more smooth?

Ford also makes an important point about how politeness can provide an important buffer in a world where people are rightfully wary about letting down their guard.

This is not a world where you can simply express love for other people, where you can praise them. Perhaps it should be. But it’s not. I’ve found that people will fear your enthusiasm and warmth, and wait to hear the price. Which is fair. We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out that we couldn’t afford it. A little distance buys everyone time. […]

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. [Emphasis added]

We should reserve opinions and suspend judgment purely out of politeness—or, for Christians, to esteem others more highly than ourselves. But it turns out that this is also an unexpected kindness to them, allowing them to set aside their fear of being judged in order to open up to us. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment.


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