I have two superpowers. The first one is that I’m effortlessly polite. To strangers.
I’ve observed this to be a rare quality in people. For example, whenever I walk down the hallways at work, I’ve noticed that most folks will look at the ground, into space, or at their phones when they pass others.
A tiny bit rude.
Me? I look directly at the person I’m passing, almost daring them to look back at me, and if they do, I give them a ‘Royal nod’, which is basically a slight tilt of my head and a closed-lip smile.
If they don’t look at me, I rationalize it all. Maybe they were lost in thought. Maybe I missed their glance.
Obviously, if the hallway is busy, and I’m passing lots of people, I don’t nod at everyone. That would be insane, and I’m not insane. Just polite.
Sanjeev, one of my co-workers from years ago, once sarcastically remarked to me: “Your nickname should be ‘absolutely sir’ because I’ve heard you say it to customers so many times.”
I wore that comment like a badge of honor.
I didn’t even realize I was saying the phrase so much. I always just figured that if a customer asked you to do something, and you could do it, it was polite to respond in the affirmative and to add on a ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’.
Sanjeev was irritated by my politeness. He hated our company and our work, and he eventually left it, and so I suppose it makes sense that these sorts of customer-centric niceties would grate on him.
But to me, it was easy to be polite. It took almost no effort for me to be nice to strangers. And I felt like it helped me.
You see, in the outside world, people don’t always expect to encounter friendly faces. And so when they do, they are often surprised and relieved. I’ve found that, especially during difficult situations, when things don’t go their way, people are more likely to calm down when they feel that they’ve come across someone who appears to be on their side.
And for me, being polite allows me to create composure during even the most stressful of work situations. It allows me to proceed through my day in a peaceful and positive manner.
That’s one of the things politeness is supposed to do, I think. It’s supposed to make people feel at ease.
I’ll share with you a secret from my politeness repertoire. It’s a simple little phrase, and it always makes people feel good. I will share this with you because I think that, if you use it wisely, you will experience the same type of joy that I feel when I use it. Here it is: Whenever you are fortunate enough to be able to help someone in some way, if they thank you, respond by telling them sincerely “It was my pleasure”.
I’ve noticed a trend for cashiers at clothing stores to say “Uh-huh” when I say “Thank you”. That response leaves me feeling empty. “You’re welcome” is almost as meaningless a response, in my eyes. On the other hand, when someone tells you that it was a pleasure for them to serve you, you are both left with a warm and fuzzy feeling.
One way to be polite is to accept people as they are. Sanjeev, for example, was a single guy, and he lived alone. One day, I visited him at his house, and I was surprised to find that he had absolutely no furniture.
No chairs. No tables. No stools. No bed.
In one of his rooms, he had a mattress on the floor, and so I figured that it was where he slept. And while I was incredibly curious as to why he was in a situation where he owned no furniture, I never once asked him about it.
That afternoon, he offered to make me tea, and I accepted. He put down newspapers on the carpet in his living room for us to sit on cross-legged, and we drank the tea together and had a very nice time.
I didn’t feel the need to mention the lack of furniture. It might have made him feel uncomfortable. It wouldn’t have been polite.
I’ve sometimes found it more difficult to be consistently polite with people who are not strangers.
There once was a woman at our company who would send me snarky emails, cc’ing my boss, and I would reply in kind. We had email battles.
One day, after a particularly vicious series of back and forths, my boss called me aside and set me straight.
“Keith, go downstairs to her office and work it out in person. Stop arguing over email.”
Now my boss was perhaps the most charismatic and personable leader I’ve ever met. He would never find himself in a situation like mine. He would never be forced to go downstairs, tail between his legs, and ‘work it out’ with someone he was battling on Microsoft Outlook.
And quite frankly, I was upset with myself for getting caught up in this ridiculous conflict.
I asked him how he was able to do it — How was he always able to stay on good terms with everyone?
“You just treat everyone you meet like they are your old friends”, was his answer.
And that, I realize, is the secret. He was telling me to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Win them over with kindness. Be more polite.
I have another great way for you to level up your politeness game, and I want to share it with you as a way of thanking you for spending this time with me today. Here it is: When you’re driving your car, and you need to change lanes and cut in front of another person’s car, instead of waving your hand to thank them for letting you in, give them a peace sign.
When you wave at someone to thank them, it’s certainly polite. But when you show them a peace sign, you are connecting with them on a more personal level. You are politely wishing them happiness as well as thanking them.
It’s important to be polite because it helps to remind us that our society is supposed to be civil and orderly.
Too often, we are witnesses to chaos. We watch as people treat each other inhumanely. We’re often exposed to injustice and prejudice and brutality.
When we treat each other politely, we are reminded that it is not supposed to be that way. We are reminded that we are meant to bring each other joy and love and peace, and not pain.
Years ago, I went out to dinner with a girl, and when I excused myself to use the bathroom, she secretly paid the waiter for our meal. It was our second date, and when I protested, she said that it ‘was only polite’ for her to pay, since I paid for us on our first date. I’m reminded today of how happy I felt back then to have met someone so generous of spirit (and in every other way), as we celebrate our 13th wedding anniversary this year.
Everyone has their own pain and their own challenges. Whether it’s depression, or drug abuse, or mental health struggles, another person’s demons are not always visible to us. When we treat everyone politely we are, in effect, treating each other as equals. We are allowing each other the freedom to exist without being judged for our hidden burdens.
And that is why it’s so important to be polite.
Anyway, at the beginning of this article, I mentioned that I had two superpowers. The first one was my ability to be effortlessly polite to strangers, as I’ve discussed above.
The other superpower?
It’s my instinctive ability to know the exact right time to use the words ‘your’ or ‘you’re’. That is as rare as politeness, in my observations. But I’ll tell you about that another time, maybe over tea.
I hope this has all helped you in some way. It’s been my pleasure to write it for you.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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