Why We Should Stop (Only) Being Polite
Polite is good. But it’s not nearly enough.
My mother (and probably yours too) would argue nothing whatsoever is wrong with being polite. In fact, we need more politeness in the world today. Being polite really shouldn’t be all that difficult. It’s often the first thing we teach our children, a basic expectation. Clearly, if there are only two choices between being rude or being polite, go with the latter. But what if a focus on politeness actually gets in the way of empathy and compassion? What if politeness is the costume we wear when we either don’t know — or don’t trust — our true selves?
I learned my childhood politeness lessons well. But Elizabeth Gilbert, author of several books including Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, inspired me to question whether being polite was good enough as I sat in the back of a worse-for-wear cab in California.
What are you most excited about?
The source of my questioning was a story Gilbert told at an event I attended. She’d spoken of the tendency we all have to switch into auto-pilot in the hustle-bustle of life. During a book tour, Gilbert said, she’d become aware of her auto-pilot setting and gave herself a challenge. She opted out of just being polite. The best-selling author ditched the standard “get to know you” questions and instead asked the people she met on the tour, “What are you most excited about?”
From the stage, Gilbert described how it wasn’t always comfortable to ask the question, and people were not universally open to it. But many were. She’d had numerous meaningful moments with virtual strangers as a result. Her talk came to mind as I sat on the squeaky-springed, black vinyl bench seat of the cab on my way to the airport.
I give it a try
The cab driver had seemed nice enough. Middle-aged. Scruffy. Dirty knuckles. We’d exchanged pleasantries as he drove through the parking lot of my hotel and out into the streets. When ordinary small talk had run its course, I could have scrolled through social media or looked silently out the window. But I thought of Gilbert and decided to give her question a try.
To my surprise, he didn’t hesitate. “You know,” he said, “I’ve had enough tragedy in my life to know that our lives are like a breath of air on a cold morning . . . there and then not, you know?” His gaze flicked to the rear view mirror. Our eyes met.
I nodded thoughtfully; yes, I did know.
A human story
He continued, “My sister got cancer, my wife got cancer, my brother committed suicide. . . . and after awhile, I just knew that vices of being a human . . . like gambling, aren’t worth it.”
My heart raced. Had I gone too far? He was telling me some pretty deep stuff. Was I willing to listen? Could I hear more? Not physically . . . I know I COULD hear more, but did I want to? Was I open to hearing this man’s pain, his sorrow, his redemption? Would it obligate me in some way? Would it upset me? I didn’t know, but I’d gone too far to back out now. “Sounds like you have some experience with that,” I said.
“Yeah. I do. I’ve been a gambler for years. Not the worst kind, but bad enough. But I decided that’s enough of that. I decided to give back. Tonight’s the second Board of Directors’ meeting for a non-profit I started.”
I was not expecting a dirty-knuckled cab driver with a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard to be excited about starting a non-profit. I’m not sure what I’d expected, but it wasn’t that. “Wow!” I said, “That’s awesome. What is it? What does it do?”
“It’s called Potter’s Work, and we want to help the homeless by giving them opportunities to learn new skills.” He pointed to the overpass we were passing by, “You know, right over there, 700 people live in tents. And they need help. They need a leg up, not people that come and bulldoze their bikes and throw out their sleeping bags. So I’m doing something because I think I can help.”
At this point in the conversation, I took a deep breath. I do that whenever my eyes catch something beautiful, like a color-saturated sunset, or an unexpected field filled with white flowers. It’s as if my body and mind know that by filling my lungs at that moment, I can somehow hold on to the beauty a little longer. Though all I saw around me at that moment were SUVs and concrete, the man’s story made me take that same deep breath.
“Do you have a website?” I asked him. “I’d love to check it out.”
“Sure!” he reached into his bag on the passenger seat and felt around until he found a business card. He passed it back to me.
I held it like a gift.
A few minutes later, he’d parked at the curbside drop off and opened my door, helping me out of the cab with my luggage. “Thanks so much for the ride,” I said. “What’s your name?” I held out my hand to him, “I’m Angela.”
“Steve,” he replied, shaking my outstretched hand. We smiled at each other. His hand was warm and soft. “I sure will, Steve. Wonderful to meet you.”
Soon, I was behind the sliding doors of the airport, and Steve’s cab had pulled away from the curb. I thought of him as I waded through security and through the labyrinth of corridors. It’s unlikely Steve and I will cross paths again. But that’s not the point. When I see people, really truly see them, I judge them less and honor them more. Steve’s doing that in his work with people in distressed circumstances. Elizabeth Gilbert did that with her question.
Politeness is good; connection, compassion, and empathy is better.