From the musings department:
The Shell of Politeness
Politeness: it’s the common ground that allows people with different ideas and personalities to get along with each other. It is a filter that lets through only the safe, politically correct and non-offensive. It’s what keeps us from saying “You hare-brained dolt” to that guy on the phone who insists that we should help him fix his broken cup-holder because he’s paid for support by holding his credit card against the monitor.
There are times when we cast politeness aside. Friends are people who know who we really are but like us anyways. In the company of friends we feel free to say the dumb things, silly things, stuff that’s taboo in polite company. Have you noticed how much more interesting your conversations with friends are after you’ve sat around the table and had a drink or two?
(this assumes you have a basically good personality. If you’re a complete asshole you should probably keep those shields of politeness raised at all times, don’t drink anything with alcohol in it, and maybe seek help)
By being polite we take an almost universally accepted stance but our interactions with people are limited by the shield; we don’t get to know who they really are, and vice versa. More importantly, creativity gets stifled and things are generally less interesting.
Think of the most memorable conversations you’ve had, solutions to problems you’ve come up with, things you’ve done with people you really know. All the interesting ones have two things in common: they involved creativity, and they were things you wouldn’t have said or done in strictly polite company, weren’t they?
Politeness has a more strict subset: formality. At work when I’m talking with clients I start the conversation firmly positioned behind both of these two filters. Sometimes an interesting thing happens, especially with longer conversations: the shield of formality falls. This is important because it really helps to get through the problem more quickly and it lets improvisation and creativity flow more easily.
Breaking Through the Shell
There are times when it’s important to let these shields down: working closely with a team, for example, we find we really start to get things done and perform well with each other once everybody really knows one another and doesn’t have to worry as much about offending anybody. Silly comments and friendly jibes are welcome and the less people concentrate on being proper, the more ideas flow and we foster an environment fertile for the growth of creativity.
Shy people have unusually strong politeness filters. Something in the shy person’s upbringing really drills home the “always be polite” ideal (and I’m willing to bet the “never talk to strangers” ideal sets in well, too). This is really important in relationship-land because relationships are all about getting to know somebody else; moving beyond the shell of politeness is a necessary means to this end.
I wrote these thoughts down after I came across a passage in a book I was reading: “Fiona sighed. When her father spoke freely, she could sense the man who had told her the stories. When certain subjects were broached, he drew down his veil and became just another … gentleman. It was irksome.” — Neal Stephenson, “The Diamond Age”.
That lead me to think of times at the cottage sitting ’round the living room with friends, fire roaring in the fireplace, beer and wine in hands, and conversation flowing freely and uninhibited. I believe this happens more successfully at the cottage than anywhere else because of how long we’re there for. There’s enough time to let the shields of politeness fully withdraw.
I guess that it takes some time for this to happen is a sign that I’m one of those shy guys – as if I didn’t already know.