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Why Politeness Matters

Politeness is important, not only because it makes other people feel good, but because it changes the way people perceive you as well. It means you hold yourself to a high standard and expect the same from others.

Have you ever stood in line to order food and heard the person in front of you say, “I want a…” or “Gimme a…” or “Let me get a…”? I have, and although I admit that I’ve probably used those words before, it bothers me every time I hear them.

I can just imagine that clerk standing behind the register being bombarded by those kinds of requests all day, every day, as if working in a burger joint for minimum wage were not bad enough as it is. On top of the stress, the low pay, and long hours, employees are also subjected to the rude and sometimes abusive requests of their patrons.

Your choice of words matters. For that clerk, hearing these impolite requests makes him or her feel unworthy of respect, shamed, and will probably result in rudeness in return. For some people, being rude to others is a way of feeling better about themselves. They believe that it puts everyone else beneath them. Most people are rude simply out of habit, or because they never learned how to be polite.

This is a problem, because believe it or not, the level of rudeness in a society directly affects its quality of life. This is something most people simply do not realize until they go to a place where politeness rules the day. In those places, people seem more cheerful and friendlier, the air is lighter, and strangers are quicker to extend a helping hand.

I’ve been to places like that, and it can seem odd and even uncomfortable for someone who did not grow up in that environment.

There have been many surveys to determine the rudest places in the United States. In 2019, Business Insider readers picked New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Boston as the top five rudest cities in the country. Boston and New York nearly always appear at the top of these lists.

Rudeness makes people feel uncomfortable and insulted, because it suggests that the person on the receiving end is lower in status that the person dishing out the abuse. Sociologists have observed that we tend to speak differently to people based on their social status. If a parent’s children are being too loud, for instance, he or she is likely to ask them directly (or simply order them) to be quiet. If that person’s boss or supervisor is being too loud, however, he or she is likely to ask politely or not at all.

Politeness elevates a person, while rudeness lowers. That is why so many people feel insulted when strangers are rude to them. Rudeness is a sign of disrespect. Many, however, have become so accustomed to it that they do not give it a second thought.

This was not always the case. Until the early 20th Century, Americans had a very heightened sense of honor. Any perceived insult, no matter how slight, could have led to a fistfight or worse. Since most Americans were armed, few people dared to disrespect each other. A whole culture of manners and social etiquette grew up around this fact. As science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once said, “An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.”

That all changed during the 1960s, when the counterculture deemed politeness to be a relic of the past. Everything, from the way people dressed to the way they spoke, became more casual. Having manners was considered stuffy and snobbish, characteristic of an out-of-touch upper class. After all, manners were identified with wealthy aristocrats and blue bloods, and anyone who aspired to be like them was, in Marxist terminology, “petite bourgeoisie.”

This attitude caught on in some places more than others, of course. People on the east coast in particular seem to take pride in their lack of manners. In the Midwest, rudeness is not as openly displayed, but it is noticeable. For the most part, I think it stems from laziness and ignorance more than anything else, and if we were to step back and think about our behavior, we might be inclined to make some changes.

Politeness is important, not only because it makes other people feel good, but because it changes the way people perceive you as well. It means you hold yourself to a high standard and expect the same from others. Because you treat others with respect, they will be inclined to return the favor. Pretty soon, you might actually look forward to ordering that value meal at your favorite fast food joint. Consider it a small step toward improving your quality of life.

A version of this column was first published October 17, 2012 at Rock River Times.

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