Balancing Politeness and Honesty

See also: How to be Polite

Sometimes the reason for being polite to others is to avoid hurting their feelings. Being impolite or rude could lead to conflict, awkwardness or embarrassment – feelings that many people try to avoid when possible.

Being polite, therefore, can mean being dishonest, deceitful or even lying. You have almost certainly been guilty of this at some point in your life and the chances are that you will recognise this trait in yourself as a regular ongoing occurrence.

This page covers some of the issues associated with the social pressures to ‘be polite’ and ‘avoid conflict’ and how to balance politeness and honesty. We provide examples and hope that you will think about the subject and how it affects your relationships with other people.

What is Deception?

Deception in interpersonal relationships is commonplace. Deception can be especially prevalent when being polite.

Deceptive communication includes three elements:

  • The information being communicated is knowingly false, inaccurate, incomplete or untrue.  This can include exaggerated claims, withholding information and lying.
  • False information is being communicated on purpose.  Such communications are not accidental, misconstrued or miscommunicated in some way – deception is intentional.
  • The sender attempts to persuade the receiver that what they are communicating is true.

A very common example of everyday deceptive communication occurs when somebody, being polite, says “Hello, how are you?”  Being polite, you answer, “I’m fine, how are you?”  They also answer “Fine”.

In fact you are having a really bad day and you don’t feel fine at all.  You have attempted to deceive the other person by making an untrue claim - making the claim on purpose in the hope that it will be believed.

The alternative would have been to indicate that you weren’t ‘fine’ but in many situations this would not be considered polite or appropriate.

You are being deceitful by saying that you’re ‘fine’ when, in fact, you are not.  You may consider that, “Hello, how are you?” is not really a question at all.  It is itself just a ‘politeness’ or ‘social nicety’, did the other person really expect you to respond in any other way than to say that you were ‘fine’?  Is saying ‘fine’ in this situation really a way of saying – I don’t want to engage in conversation with you?

Another Example:  Two people meet in the street, they have known each other for years but neither particularly likes the other.  They greet, say hello and ask about each other’s families – engaging in some small-talk.  One glances at their watch and makes excuses to leave the conversation.  The parting remarks are: “It was nice to see you, we should do this more often. Call me and we’ll have coffee”.  In reality the feelings were more like “It was not nice to see you and I hope I don’t bump into you again anytime soon. Don’t call me!”

Most people can recognise this example (or something similar).  The communication was polite and well-mannered but ultimately untrue. Is a certain amount of dishonesty acceptable in such situations? If both parties had been completely honest with each other then they would have probably caused offence and be considered impolite or rude.

Getting the Balance Right

As with many things in life we all have to manage a balance between politeness and honesty. Such balances will be personal to us and dependent on many factors.

The good news is that most people get the balance right most of the time – with practice and experience this becomes easier and more natural.

At one end of the spectrum, if you are always completely honest with people, telling them exactly what you think, you will probably be considered rude and be deemed to have poor social skills. This could well mean that you have fewer friends and less opportunity to meet new people or gain new social experiences.

On the other hand, if you try to be ‘polite’ all the time you will probably not be representing a true picture of yourself and therefore be deceitful.  People may attempt to do this because of problems with self-esteem, confidence or poor assertiveness skills.

Some people find it difficult to say ‘no’ when they are asked to do something – worried that they may somehow offend. This can be problematic if you take on too many tasks because you never say 'no' and you will likely find yourself in a situation where you are not completing tasks to your satisfaction (or to the satisfaction of others).  Dissatisfaction with personal performance can be very stressful and negatively affect self-esteem, which in turn may make saying ‘no’ even more difficult and so the pattern is repeated.

There are of course polite ways to say no, without actually using the word ‘no’!  ‘I’d love to help with that but unfortunately…’ etc.

It is important to remember that:

You can please some of the people some of the time, all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time - but you can never please all of the people all of the time.

-  Abraham Lincoln

All social situations are different and in each situation you need to use common-sense and good judgement.  Common-sense and good judgement come with experience. Experience, in turn, comes from observing others and from making mistakes, learning what does and doesn't work, what is acceptable and what is not.

Generally, dishonesty and insincerity can be recognised by others and can affect your relationships negatively.  However, there are occasions when not being totally honest can aid social interactions.  Being ‘over-polite’, for example, or using more complicated sentences than necessary: “Excuse me kind sir, would you mind terribly passing the salt, please?” may work on Downton Abbey, but in real-life can be irritating when a simple, “Can you pass the salt, please?” would be acceptable.

Faux Pas and Humour

A ‘faux pas’ (from French meaning ‘false step’) is usually an accidental, or unintentional, breach of socially accepted norms, manners or etiquette.  As a faux pas is unintentional - a mistake or blunder and not a deliberate act of rudeness - it is often considered amusing, especially to an observer, although can be very embarrassing for the person or people involved.

For these reasons faux pas are used frequently in comedy – especially in sitcoms.  Such situations can make the audience cringe, empathise with and ultimately laugh at the characters being portrayed.  The more in tune you are with the rules of etiquette the more likely you are to react to the embarrassment caused to others in such situations.  Conversely, if you lack knowledge or experience of socially acceptable behaviour you are less likely to get the joke.  This can be particularly true across different cultures or demographics and is why comedy does not always translate or travel well.

The relationship between comedy and faux pas helps to demonstrate the importance many people put on acceptable social interactions, in a wide variety of settings.

You may find our page: Developing a Sense of Humour interesting.

Although this page has discussed the relationships between politeness and honesty you should not conclude that being polite is always being dishonest or deceitful.  In most interpersonal relationships being polite is desirable and an honest reflection of your awareness and respect for others.

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