Overcoming Phony Politeness

You may think of maintaining your boundaries as something you need to do to protect yourself, but practicing good boundary management for yourself can actually serve the people around you very well too.

Your boundaries define what you’re willing to allow into your life. You decide the types of people you’ll associate with and to what extent. You decide what types of behaviors you’ll allow and what’s off limits for you.

One guy I know has a clear boundary around whining. He doesn’t tolerate people whining in his presence. He advertises this boundary openly, so the people around him know this. Yes, he maintains this boundary for his own needs, but also consider how it serves others. People in his life will whine less when they’re around him, so they’ll likely spend less time whining overall. The “no whining” rule helps to redirect their energy away from a pointless bad habit.

Many people consider smoking in their presence to be a boundary issue. The more people who establish and maintain this boundary, the less encouragement there is for the horrendously bad habit of smoking. Does being tolerant of smoking actually do smokers as much service as being intolerant of it? Tolerating such a bad habit only invites more of it.

A lot of people are unwilling to maintain in-person relationships with smokers, so smokers will see their social opportunities shrink. Many people will avoid hanging out with smokers, especially for health reasons. Even those who smoke outside and come back inside smelling like ashtrays will incur a negative social hit. Being near someone who smells toxic is repulsive to many people.

It’s hard to imagine a mature, functional adult who doesn’t practice good boundary management to ward off other people’s unwanted behaviors. But a lot of people also resist maintaining good boundaries for the sake of politeness. Consider, however, that excessive politeness may simply encourage the unwanted behavior. If you try to be overly polite instead of firm, you’ll invite and incur more boundary violations.

You don’t get what you want here. You get what you’re willing to tolerate.

When I was in a phase of my life where I did a lot of destructive and illegal stuff, I really didn’t lose friends over it. My friends may have lost some respect for me, but they still hung out with me, shared meals together, and invited me to their all-night poker games just the same. What they didn’t realize is that by being so accepting and tolerant of my illegal activities (like shoplifting and other crazy stunts), they were granting silent approval of my bad habits. They didn’t actually help me in the ways I most needed help.

It would have been better if my friends had maintained stronger ethical boundaries regarding my behavior and cut me off socially while I engaged in those behaviors. I think that would have gotten my attention and helped me straighten out sooner than I did. I respected my friends and the relationships I had with them, and I wouldn’t have wanted to threaten that. It would have been hard for me to deal with being ostracized, but if I had to choose between doing crazy illegal stuff and maintaining my existing friendships, I think I would have chosen to preserve the friendships. I think that type of social pressure would have been healthy for me. Sure it would have been nice if I didn’t need it, but what was the alternative? I had to be straightened out by multiple court appearances instead.

Even if my other option was to continue doing illegal stuff and to lie about it, that would have damaged my friendships too. I’d have to sink even more to continue the bad habits. And I’d know that if my friends discovered the truth, I’d be in for more social problems. I think that threat to my social life would have also had a beneficial effect. Of course this depends on how much leverage there is in those relationships.

Some friends did try to talk some sense into me, but they were so gentle and polite about it, and there were no real social consequences for noncompliance on my part, so it really had no effect. I just replied with sarcasm or joked around with them in response.

While I agree that it’s nice to allow people social freedoms, I think this approach has its limits and ought to be balanced with some firm encouragement to develop better self-control. At some point when a person is engaging in destructive behavior, it may be wise to escalate to a stronger social consequence.

This is how many human tribes resolved differences before we developed more complex state-based societies. Negative behaviors were often socially punished. And dispute resolution was based on preserving and restoring healthy community relationships, not primarily on achieving justice.

In yesterday’s post about Trump supporters, I did my best to make it clear that people who support this loser will incur a social consequence from me. I’m just one person doing this, but if more people joined in, perhaps we could really shift something here and help people abandon this foolish and destructive behavior pattern.

While some people feel it’s best to keep communication channels open and try to be polite, I think that’s too weak of a position, especially with respect to the disease of Trumpism. and it will just enable and encourage more idiotic behavior. “Let’s be polite and civil about this” is the same attitude that enables racism to continue. At some point when a problem has festered long enough, it’s time to establish some firmer consequences. When the consequences become strong enough, it really does change people’s behaviors.

Don’t you feel that certain negative behaviors are much riskier today than they were 10-20 years ago? Why? Because the social consequences of some of those behaviors are even higher today than they used to be.

To raise our collective social standards, we must be firmer with boundary management as individuals.

Consider that being firm and resolute in your boundary management may be a lot more beneficial for others than being so polite and gentle. When you’re leaning towards gentleness, consider why you’re doing that? Is it really the best course of action for the other person in the long run? Or are you really just trying to avoid a conflict that you’d rather not deal with?

Politeness and gentleness are good values when your boundaries aren’t being violated. If you want to preserve the status quo, go ahead and favor politeness in your interactions. I for one think the status quo in the USA right now is pretty fucking far from okay, as do many people I know. I like that we’ve opened a gateway where honesty and firmness are becoming more important than politeness and gentleness. Yes, there’s a lot of anger coming out too – the result of too much phony politeness for too long. I find the emotional honesty coming out of people these days to be refreshing.

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Steve Pavlina

Steve Pavlina is an American self-help author, motivational speaker and entrepreneur. He is the author of the web site stevepavlina.com and the book Personal Development for Smart People.

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