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30 Jun 2014

Politeness as Dishonesty

Politeness as Dishonesty

Are we being dishonest when we are being polite?

Politeness softens the edge on our feelings but does so at the cost of cutting a good understanding of where we stand. If doing this purposely, are we dishonest?

Early in our marriage, my wife showed me a wallpaper sample for our bedroom. I politely said I didn’t like it. The next day, returning from work, it was up. I asked her why when I told her I didn’t like it. She answered that it didn’t seem like I disliked it a lot. Ironically, according to “Perils of Candour” (The Economist, June 7, 2014 edition), China-United States relations seem to suffer from the same politeness. A spat that occurred between the two was “welcome relief from the stifling obfuscation and pussyfooting courtesy in which much diplomacy is cloaked.” Could our workplaces be suffering from such politeness, creating problems with dishonesty and effectiveness?

We naturally shy away from dissent and conflict. We often use euphemisms such as retrenching to reference terminations and challenges to reference problems. Not only might they hide reality but they might compel us to express ourselves dishonestly. For example, is it dishonest to express something as a challenge, when we feel it’s a problem?

Moreover, as with any dishonesty, politeness produces problems. Avoiding conflict and dissent is bad for innovation and business. Some then ask, “So, I should be rude?” The real question is, “If honestly expressing how you feel, how can anybody interpret that as anything but honesty? It’s neither polite nor rude. Polite means you’re packaging truth to please, rude packaging it to hurt. Both can manipulate.

Yet, people prefer to characterize our words and behaviors along a polite-rude spectrum. Otherwise, they might find themselves admitting that they don’t like our honesty. Who’s going to admit, especially to themselves, that they don’t like honesty?

 

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