For most of human history, politeness was an admirable trait. Belonging to polite society not only meant you were upper class— it meant you conducted yourself with refinement and taste. The polite woman had exquisite manners: she knew how to maneuver her fork and knife, how to taste the caviar, how to elegantly sip her champagne. And because she was worldly and well-traveled, she could effortlessly entertain.
However, our attitude toward politeness changed with the Romantic movement. Because the romantics valued individual expression above all else, they viewed strict 19th century social customs as unhealthy constraints. In the prim, prudish Victorian age, formal etiquette dictated every aspect of life from how you greeted your guests to how long you could acceptably chat with an acquaintance at a busy intersection. A “lady” should only wear white gloves to dinner and never, never use both hands to raise her dress while crossing the street. Perhaps most ironically, repressed Victorians believed “no topic of absorbing interest may be admitted to polite conversation” because “it might lead to discussion and debate.”
Rather than regard politeness as an indication of a kind and civilized person, the romantics saw it as a sign of superficiality. Those courteous dignitaries and chic debutantes who knew the proper etiquette at parties were not well-bred— they were phony. What society termed “politeness” was really just the Machiavellian ability to manipulate others for your own gain: those at society’s highest rungs only wrote darling thank you cards and threw extravagant soirees to increase their social standing.
In romantic thought, candor was a much more admirable trait. According to the romantics, the individual was an instrument of God while society fettered the soul in chains. Rather than restrain ourselves, they believed we should cast off the shackles of so-called social niceties: after all, why should we have to hold our tongue when our great uncle says something insensitive/borderline racist at Thanksgiving? why should we refrain from discussing politics or religion for fear of offending? and why, exactly, should we allow other people’s hypersensitivity limit our God-given right to self-expression and our democratically-protected right to free speech?
Today we continue to prefer candor to restraint. In their revolt against political correctness, conservatives have pitted freedom of expression against civility and basic good taste. While those on the right distrust politicians who equivocate in Washington’s too tactful doublespeak, they rally behind straight-shooters like Donald Trump because— not it spite of— his willingness to break the “countless unspoken rules regarding what public figures can or cannot say.” The president’s disgusting comments about women and discriminatory proposal to ban Muslims don’t prove he’s a racist or misogynist or overall horrible human being— they prove he’s trustworthy. “Look what he openly says about women and minorities!” Trump supporters must think, “he’ll tell it to us straight!” Today “politically correct” has become a pejorative term associated with overly sensitive liberals and cowardly politicians who are too terrified to say what they mean.
Though good old-fashioned politeness might be a relic of another age, British philosopher Alain de Botton argues respect is a tradition worth resurrecting. In his latest volume The School of Life: An Emotional Education, the same seminar that taught us how to master the four criteria of emotional health, how books can be a balm for loneliness, how the sublime can give us greater perspective, how to be kind, and how to be charming, de Botton maintains it’s better to be too polite than too frank. Unlike the frank person, who believes no occasion should call for self-censorship, the polite person recognizes many situations require they edit themselves. The fact that they conceal parts of their character doesn’t make them deceptive or dishonest: it simply makes them considerate. The polite person is all too aware there are many things about them that could disgust or otherwise offend. As Botton writes:
“The polite person proceeds under grave 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 come across as 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 that they must take enormous pains to spare everyone else from experiencing— especially anyone they claim to care about.”
What separates the polite from the rest of us? Rather than presume everyone is just like them, polite people realize others have their own opinions and preferences. Though the polite host might prefer a refreshing pinot grigio to a buttery chardonnay, they are perfectly aware their guests might have different taste. So what do they do? They ask what their guests like better and accommodate:
“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 behavior is therefore tentative, wary and filled with enquiries. They will explicitly check 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 the 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.”
More than anything, polite people are sensitive people. Though we live in a callous age where “sensitive” has become a derogatory word hurled at the easily offended, no quality is more important to human relationships. The polite person exercises tact— not because they’re a phony people pleaser or cunning social climber— but because they know even the most self-possessed among us are insecure: an unreturned phone call, a dismissive grunt or mean-spirited joke, a cutting remark or harsh word has the profound capacity to hurt. Lesson? We should be sensitive because others are always teetering on the edge of a cliff— one small wind and they can descend into despair.