Should you be Frank or Polite?

Moments before Queen Marie Antoinette apologised for stepping on the executioner’s foot.

The idea of being “polite”, for most parts of recorded history, has revolved around the social decrees of being the civilised and socially acceptable person. While we may not outright reject it, it’s not a word we now instinctively reach for when we want to explain why we admire someone. A “polite” person may come to be judged as “plastic” — having an insolent degree of insincerity and inauthenticity. In recent times politeness has come under plenty of speculations especially after the election in the country that has been, what we can presumably agree to be the most influential culture for a century and a half. It seems as though bigotry and frankness have taken undue precedence over what is inarguably the most basic and foremost human virtue —being courteous.

The rise of this accumulative suspicion has a past, it had been a great deal before the gothic culture overshadowed the classicism. In, what is deemed to be one of the most influential books on manners ever written —“The Book of the Courtier” by Baldassare Castiglione, published in the early onset of the 16th century — politeness was referred to as the central virtue and the cornerstone of ethical behaviour. The manual informed its readers in great detail about how to dress, hold cutlery, smile, ride a horse and narrate an anecdote. There were some careful words too about how to clear one’s throat and what to do if one felt a sneeze coming on. This was held to be far from trivial as Castiglione believed that a high level of artificiality was the only route to social acceptance and decency. The virtue of politeness was given equal importance by Romans, validated by John Hall’s interpretation of Cicero’s Letters which stand substantially for the proof of the “politeness theory”.

In contrast was the 18th-century Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who put the ideals of political correctness into disrepute with his Romantic ideal of remaining — at all times — fundamentally faithful to oneself. Rousseau’s writings created highly predominant ideals of conduct — to which we remain heirs and follow devoutly. It had been once that the well-educated aristocrats of France with their impeccable knowledge and inference of minor aspects of style, who had been thought of as the exemplars of admirable attitude towards society. Rousseau now directed the prestige towards a far less familiar and lauded class; the rough peasant shepherd who he knew from his hikes across the Appenzell region of the Alps — an independent minded person who could speak his mind, blow his nose loudly. Tell you exactly how things were in plain, unadorned language. This character, rather than bewigged, aristocrat was to be the new target of social emulation.

What truly differentiates between a polite person and a frank person is their understanding and reciprocating to the surrounding. A polite person displays empathy and would go measures to ensure that you’re comfortable, putting their emotions and feelings in jeopardy. Erstwhile the frank person would show apathy towards their surrounding and would go great deals to make sure they’re comfortable, this puts the other’s emotions and feelings in jeopardy. There are so many things that make politeness to be a virtue for humans who are socially and morally accepted first that being polite leads to the general satisfaction of the people around and doesn’t alienate them, like it’d be if the person were to be truthful about what they felt which in most scenarios has a pertinent negative outlook.

Generally, people who tend to be frank end up having no self-censorship which leads to a childish outburst or at times rants about matters which could’ve been placed out even more systematically. They’re firm believers and evangelist of the self-instilled idea that “Honesty is the best policy” as put forth by Benjamin Franklin, who clearly himself never believed in those ideals and led up the ranks to be one of the most politically correct person in American Politics. Frank people often end up minimising their social circle and alienate a lot of people as popularised by Jim Parsons in the fabled Television Series “Big Bang Theory” where the character, Sheldon Cooper, with his frank mind tends to be hurtful unknowingly and has a considerably small social circle owing to his narcissism and bigotry.

Paradoxically, the polite person who is pessimistic about their own nature doesn’t, in fact, end up behaving horribly with anyone. So aware are they of their own dislikable sides, they nimbly minimise their impact upon the world. It is their extraordinary suspicion of themselves that helps them be — in everyday life — uncommonly friendly, trustworthy and kind. As described by Wilkie Collins in his book “The Moonstone” about the character that etches the entire memoir gains mass support from all branches of the family but in turn puts his own thoughts into a mode of insecurity and jeopardy.

What ultimately divides the Polite from the Frank isn’t really the knowledge of etiquette or the proficiency of knowing when to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’. It all narrows down to a contrasting set of beliefs about human ideology. They behave differently as they see the world from contrasting visions, polar opposites so as to say.

In my earnest opinion, one should frankly be polite.

Having an existential crisis,
Om Nagle.

Word Count: 852 words.

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