Claire Benoist for Reader's DigestMost people don’t notice I’m polite, which is the point. I don’t look polite. I am big and droopy and need a haircut. No soul would associate me with watercress sandwiches. Still, every year or so, someone takes me aside and says, “You actually are weirdly polite, aren’t you?” I always thrill. They noticed.
The complimenters don’t always formulate it gently. Two years ago, at the end of an arduous corporate project, my office mate turned to me and said, “When we started working together, I thought you were a terrible suck-up.”
She frowned. “But it actually helped get things done. It was a strategy.”
My coworker was surprised to see the stubborn power of politeness over time. Over time. That’s the thing. Mostly we talk about politeness in the moment: Please; thank you; no, go ahead; I like your hat; sir, ma’am, etc. All good but fleeting.
When I was in high school, I read etiquette manuals. Emily Post and so forth. There was good stuff about how to write a note of condolence and ridiculous stuff about how to behave on boats. No one noticed my politeness except for one kid. He yelled at me about it. “Why you always so polite, man?” he asked. “It’s weird.” I took that as praise and made a note to hide my politeness further. Real politeness, I reasoned, was invisible. It adapted itself to the situation.
Say This at a Party
Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what she does for a living. When that painful lull arrives, right after she tells you, say, “Wow. That sounds hard.”
Because nearly everyone in the world believes her job to be difficult. I once met a beautiful woman at a party whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult, she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled, grabbed my hand, and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself.
Another way to be polite is by not touching people unless they specifically invite it. Since I’m a polite person, the idea of just reaching out and touching people’s hair, for example, makes my eye twitch. When would it be appropriate? If there was a very large poisonous spider in their hair. If I was doing a magic trick. Or after six or more years of marriage.
I see people as having a two- or three-foot invisible buffer around them. If there is a stray hair on their jacket, I ask them if I can pluck it. If they don’t want that, they’ll do it themselves. Whatever happens inside that buffer is entirely up to them.
Give Second Chances
Politeness leaves doors open. I’ve met so many people whom, if I had trusted my first impressions, I would never have wanted to meet again. Yet many of them are now great friends.
One of those people is my wife. On our first date, she told me at length about the surgical removal of a dermoid cyst from her ovaries. This is a cyst with hair and teeth (not a metaphor). It killed the chemistry. I walked her home, told her I’d had a great time, and went home and looked up cysts on the Internet.
We talked a little after that. I kept everything pleasant and brief. A year later, I ran into her on the train, and we got another drink. Much later, I learned that she’d been having a very bad day in a very bad year.
People silently struggle from all kinds of terrible things. They suffer from depression, ambition, substance abuse, and pretension. They suffer from family tragedy, Ivy League educations, self-loathing, and publishing. The good thing about politeness is you can treat these people exactly the same and wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don’t need to make a judgment.
There is another aspect of my politeness that I am reluctant to mention. But I will. I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming empathy. I really do want to know about hanging jewelry from celebrities. What does it feel like in your hand? What do celebrities feel like in your hand? Which one is smoother?
This is not a world where you can simply express love for other people, where you can praise them. I’ve found that people will fear your enthusiasm and warmth and wait to hear the price. Which is fair. We’ve all been drawn into someone’s love only to find out we couldn’t afford it. A little distance buys everyone time.
Last week, my wife came back from the playground. She told me that my two-year-old son, Abraham, had walked up to a woman in a hijab and asked, “What’s your name?”
The woman told him. Then he put out his little hand and said, “Nice to meet you!” Everyone laughed, and he smiled. He shared with her his firmest handshake, like I taught him.