Politeness: What’s the point?

Brits are renowned around the globe for good manners. Apologising every two minutes, refusing to take the last biscuit, forever claiming everything is ‘fine’…  all exclusively British acts, instilled into our […]


Brits are renowned around the globe for good manners. Apologising every two minutes, refusing to take the last biscuit, forever claiming everything is ‘fine’…  all exclusively British acts, instilled into our culture under the banner of ‘etiquette’.

But how necessary is it all? Does this politeness actually benefit anyone? Does it really encompass the ‘respect, consideration and thoughtfulness’ by which the dictionary defines it?

Take our puzzling ways of speaking. Today’s British language constitutes a host of dubious words and phrases, frequently used in an attempt to conceal what is really meant, for fear of causing offence or seeming rude. ‘No offence, but..’, ‘with all due respect’, or ‘fine’: all examples of common utterances whose face value meanings are far from the contexts in which we use them.

 

But what are the true effects of this? In the end, we all know the true meanings behind what’s been said, so what’s the point in trying to beat about the bush? If anything, this so-called ‘polite’ dishonesty probably makes things more uncomfortable for the person towards to whom it is directed.

And the consequences of not revealing what we really think only get worse when it comes to withholding the more sensitive truths from people close to us. Take body weight: Brits would never dream of informing someone that they are putting on weight or that, on the other side of the scale, they are looking particularly bony, while many of our neighbouring countries would see this as a vital duty to a friend or family member.

Indeed, perhaps this is part of the reason why our nation has such high levels of obesity, and also suffers from one of the highest eating disorder rates in Europe. We are all too afraid of causing offence to act on such problems.

Another questionable act of British politeness is the custom of apologising all the time. Even in the most busy of places, we tend to mutter “sorry” every time we so much as skim past a stranger, even if it wasn’t our fault.

And to what end? In a crowded environment, brief physical contact with fellow humans is simply inevitable. What’s more, the apology we mumble is usually such an instinctive response that we don’t even really mean it at all, and, in actual fact, couldn’t give a damn about the other person.

Finally, and of a similar nature, is our habit of grudgingly enduring bad situations instead of actively trying to resolve them, for fear of seeming impolite. Take the simple example of when someone accidentally enters the queue in front of you. While cordially confronting them would be a simple way of dealing with the situation, Brits will so often remain shtum, just tutting silently and shooting daggers at the back of the innocently mistaken person’s head.

Queue jumpers: how do YOU deal with them?

Queue jumpers: how do YOU deal with them?

But why? Surely informing the person in the wrong of their mistake would do no harm at all and would, ultimately, be far more polite than conjuring up a hatred for them behind their back…

Thus, could it be that our Great British etiquette can in fact sometimes subvert the very motive of politeness, leading to dishonesty and shadiness, as well as indirectly contributing to some of our nation’s biggest problems?

Indeed, it would seem that many of our so-called ‘good manners’ have become mere instinctive acts, which ultimately only cause bigger problems than they endeavour to resolve…

So, next time you find yourself muttering aloof sorries every few minutes in the street, or saying ‘no disrespect, but..’ just before uttering something deeply insulting, take a minute to think: what is the point?