Monday, July 29, 2013

The power of politeness

When I lived in Southern California one of my least favorite places to spend time was the line at the DMV.  It wasn't at all unknown to spend 45 minutes to an hour (or longer) waiting to be seen.  Then, once you got to the counter, you had the joy of speaking to a person whose approach to his or her job was one of less than boundless enthusiasm.  Sometimes these folks deserve the reputation they have for being rude and unhelpful.  I've been chastised and insulted by more than one public employee for things as ridiculous as resting my elbows on the counter and thus "invading" his or her personal space.  One day, I had an idea.  While I waited in line, I spent my time watching the interactions between customers and other customers, between staff members and between staff and customers.  I noticed that there was often a lack of politeness on the part of all parties, especially between customers and staff.  So, I decided to try something every time I went to the DMV.  I spoke politely to the staff and other customers.  If the person ahead of me had been rude, I made it a point to say something like "I'm sorry you had to put up with that behavior.  It must make your job harder."  I'd thank them for helping me.  An amazing thing started to happen.  While I still had to spend more time in line than I wanted, my interactions with the staff began to improve.  They became more willing to go a little further than required to help.  They smiled more.  They started saying things like "you're welcome" and "thank you" in something other than a monotone.  It didn't happen every time (there are, sadly, some people who just don't value politeness) but it happened often enough to be noticeable.  I tried the same thing with other customers and got similar results.

Perhaps you're old enough to remember hearing someone actually saying "you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."  The point was that politeness is far more effective than rudeness in getting people to cooperate with us.  Taking the time to listen to others.  Asking questions about them.  Using their name when we speak to them.  Saying "please" and "thank you."  All of these are examples of what I call basic politeness.  Dale Carnegie's book entitled How to Win Friends and Influence People spends a great deal of time encouraging this politeness.  It's easy to look at his book as a primer on manipulation, but it really isn't.  Instead, it's a good guide to treating other people in a way that acknowledges their worth and value. In fact, one of the points made in the book is that if the things it teaches are used for manipulation, the manipulator is virtually guaranteed to get caught!  It's not about manipulation, it's about treating others with respect.  I had a conversation about politeness with my daughter.  She was upset that she had said "please" and hadn't gotten what she wanted.  I explained that politeness isn't to get what we want.  Politeness is about treating others the way we want to be treated (I seem to recall there is a Golden Rule that says something about how to treat people).  Does it have benefits?  Yes, it does.  If I'm not committed to treating other people with common courtesy, chances are I won't do it consistently enough to experience any of those benefits (another reason to not try to manipulate people).

Are people not responding well to you?  Do you find your interactions with others to be marked more by conflict than by cooperation?  Maybe you'd just like to have more pleasant interactions.   I'm certainly not saying you're impolite.  Still, since you can't control others, but only yourself, you might want to consider giving more attention to politeness a try.

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