Wellbeing: When politeness is problematic

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In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell recounts how a plane crew's attempts to politely tell the pilot about ice on the wings led to a crash.

Dr. Aidan Feeney has a few thoughts about politeness. Essentially, he thinks it has the ability to cost lives. “The more serious the situation, the more likely you are to be polite and the more room there is for confusion,” says Feeney, a professor at the school of psychology at Queen’s University, Belfast, and co-author of a new paper entitled The Risk of Polite Misunderstanding , published last week by the Association of Psychological Science. “We’re motivated to protect the face of the people we’re speaking with, but when delivering bad news, or explaining a grave situation, a lack of bluntness makes a high-stakes situation much more grave.”

Feeney and his cohorts — who include Wim De Neys and Jean-Francois Bonnefon, a professor who has spent almost a decade researching politeness at the Université de Toulouse in Bonnefont, France — are not out to incite a wave of rudeness, though. For the most part, Feeney says a little politeness in everyday society is just fine. “If your spouse has a bad haircut and you say something like, ‘That’s really eye-catching,’ in that context, politeness is perfectly understandable,” says Feeney, himself a married father of a three-year-old boy. “In a way, you’re sugar-coating what you have to say, but you don’t want to embarrass a loved one. In some contexts, politeness is sensible.”

Politeness can become toxic, however, when it’s used in the military or by the medical industry or, as cited by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers , when it’s used by people trying to land a plane. In Feeney’s paper, he discusses an incident raised by Gladwell in which an air crew was overly polite in informing a pilot about ice on his plane’s wings. “If you’re not aware that the speaker is being polite, you can get things wrong,” says Feeney, noting the air crew tried three times to inform the pilot about the ice, but used a roundabout way of speaking that obscured the fact that the plane was flying in a danger zone. By the time the crew finally put the situation bluntly, it was too late: the plane was about to crash.

“Detecting politeness uses up cognitive resources and the more serious the situation, the harder it is to think,” Feeney says. “It’s always hard to interpret language, but it becomes even harder when you’re trying to do something like land a plane.” For the majority of us, polite misunderstandings are more likely to concern an unrequited office crush or confusion about whose turn it is to make dinner than anything that puts actual lives at risk. However, the vagaries of language and the lengths we take to eliminate conflict can add an unnecessary ripple to the ebbs and flow of how we communicate.

Feeney insists he has nothing against politeness. But just like compliments and insults, he believes all language should be handled with care.“Language is a very indefinite enterprise at the best of times. We rarely say exactly what we mean,” he says. “That’s basically OK in most modern-day communication. The problem lies when we raise the stakes.”