Mind Your Manners: Why Politeness Wins in the Workplace

  • October 29, 2019

There’s the colleague who doesn’t say hello in the corridor, and another who is always late to meetings. Then there’s the one who stares at her phone while you’re trying to talk to her. Are you beginning to suspect that politeness at work is passé? It seems you might be right. A Harvard Business Review study revealed that good manners really are on the decline in the workplace: 98% of employees have been on the receiving end of disrespect, with half of them saying it happens at least once a week.

These numbers are more than just disconcerting. In fact, the same study revealed that impoliteness not only makes staff less committed to their employer, but it also makes them less productive. Cisco even put a price on what incivility costs the company annually—about $12 million. Are work environments becoming less and less polite? Let’s take a moment to reflect on the benefits of good manners.

A brief history of politeness

Politeness, decency, and etiquette are natural laws that carry tremendous weight for us as humans. These values have been handed down from generation to generation with little change. Their persistence shows their importance: these codes of behavior are essential to build and maintain society. Practice and repetition of these natural laws give us a safe space to create and retain trust between individuals. They are an integral part of the socialization process and the way we teach our children social norms.

Of course, politeness varies from culture to culture. In an article on international business etiquette in Forbes magazine, Stephen Flowers, president of global freight forwarding at UPS, shed some light on important rules when working abroad. For example, don’t leave a meeting before it is over when in Brazil. In China, it is considered a sign of respect and commitment if a Westerner doing business there adopts a Chinese name. Meanwhile, Japanese customs dictate that the most senior member of a team leads the discussion during meetings. Although politeness is universal, it is expressed in different ways.

What exactly is politeness?

Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson’s politeness theory—based on the work of American sociologist Erving Goffman—explains the human strategy behind politeness. Each person has two faces: one positive and one negative. Positive face reflects an individual’s self-esteem and self-image. It’s about the need to seek approval from others. Negative face reflects the need for personal freedom of choice on every level—it’s the right to make one’s own decisions. Brown and Levinson conclude that every human interaction contains potential threats to these two faces that the rules of politeness attempt to counterbalance.

Consequently, criticism or poorly worded suggestions— for example, “You shouldn’t have done it like that” or “I would have done it more like this”—are a threat to an individual’s positive face. Conversely, someone who is too touchy-feely, or who barks direct orders, threatens someone’s negative face. As a result, politeness is a balancing act between the desire to uphold our own faces without attacking the faces of others.

The virtues of polite behavior

Politeness is a reflection of the social relations maintained between two individuals. It can build, solidify, or destroy relationships. Companies are beginning to understand the real costs associated with rudeness in the workplace. But what are the specific benefits of good manners?

  • Making a good first impression. First impressions can set the tone of a relationship, so it’s important to start off on the right foot. Polite behavior shows others that you care about them, and that makes them more likely to be interested in you. On the job, simple actions such as saying “please” and “thank you” can go a long way in building solid relationships with your coworkers. In the same way, being polite and personable with everyone you meet, from the cleaning staff to the head honcho, will always make a difference.
  • Making people you talk to feel at ease. Maryanne Parker, a business etiquette expert based in San Diego, believes that the main trait all polite people share is their ability to make others feel comfortable. They immediately recognize uneasy work situations and understand how to help resolve these problems. Managers use this keen ability to demonstrate support for their teams. Someone who patiently waits until the end of an explanation before asking questions will make others feel more at ease. They will be best able to provide more considered responses than those who interrupt mid-sentence. Cutting someone off or berating them can seem aggressive, which, in turn, can cause the affected individual to stop wanting to do their best.
  • Appearing more legitimate. The Politeness Bias, a study carried out by Shun-Yang Lee, Huaxia Rui, and Andrew Whinston, revealed that information delivered with a good dose of politeness is perceived as more legitimate than the same information delivered candidly, or even worse, offensively. The study’s conclusions can easily apply to the business environment. The researchers looked at conversations on Stack Exchange, an online network of Q&A platforms. Responses that used polite, pleasant phrases received more positive grades—which translates to credibility in this case—than those written without these courtesies. This is proof that taking a few extra seconds to sign off with “kind regards” at the end of your e-mails makes them more genuine. Politeness makes us appear more reliable and intelligent.
  • Showing respect and support. Good manners help us to express appreciation and respect towards our colleagues and their opinions. We tend to remember a warm thank-you more than an end-of-year bonus. If these expressions of recognition are infrequent, then motivation and the desire to go the extra mile for a company, team, or coworker decrease. What’s more, we are naturally inclined to help a coworker who politely requests a favor with sincere gratitude than someone who asks the same favor without paying attention to the expected norms of politeness.
  • Disarming conflicts. Disagreements at work are normal and inevitable. But combined with impolite behavior, they can escalate into conflict that adversely affects the cohesion and work of an entire team. An inattentive reaction such as “This presentation is not up to par. Do it again,” can be interpreted as a personal attack. Compare this with the same thought expressed with more consideration: “If I may say so, this presentation doesn’t have quite the same punch as what you have done before. Would you be able to rework it, please?” Someone who expresses their dissatisfaction too directly risks causing offense and therefore leaves little room for compromise.

When excessive politeness becomes harmful

It is natural for “polite” people to want to preserve others’ faces, but we should never forego our own needs. Being overly polite can pose a problem for our well-being and sense of identity. What are the three biggest dangers of excessive politeness?

  1. Suppressing emotions. The need to feel socially accepted can lead to a certain dependence on others. If we are afraid to make those around us uncomfortable, we risk suppressing our own emotions, which are important in helping us to build our emotional, and therefore professional, maturity.
  2. Maintaining a reputation. Being too polite can lead to the negative consequence of constantly looking for approval. If you try to keep up a reputation at all costs, it can cause an accumulation of social pressure that is very difficult to maintain in the long term.
  3. Being taken advantage of. When you confuse politeness for an excess of generosity, you end up becoming the person who is handed all the urgent projects and 11th hour presentations. Or someone who often gets their meetings cancelled at the last minute. The personal sacrifices we make for fear of being thought of as rude can lead to others taking advantage of us.

Working closely with others requires tact and common sense; it demands constant effort. Thankfully, when politeness is under threat at work, the answer usually lies in the choices we make and the behaviors we practice, each one of us, as social human beings. The future of politeness rests firmly on our shoulders. To conclude in the spirit of this article, we would like to thank you for taking the time to read it!

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Translated by Mary Mortiz

Photo: WTTJ

Marlène Moreira

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