A Perfect Gentleman

by Dish Staff

Paul Ford sings the praises of politeness:

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

This politeness, according to Ford, can come naturally, even when socially compelled to discuss Jessica Simpson’s jewelry selection:

There is one other aspect of my politeness that I am reluctant to mention. But I will. I am often consumed with a sense of overwhelming love and empathy. I look at the other person and am overwhelmed with joy. For all of my irony I really do want to know about the process of hanging jewelry from celebrities. What does the jewelry feel like in your hand? What do the celebrities feel like in your hand? Which one is more smooth?

Olga Khazan responds, noting the connection between politeness and empathy:

There are multiple ideas of what it means to be polite. The oldest, coined by the British philosopher Lord Shaftesbury in the early 1700s, holds that “‘politeness’ may be defined a dext’rous management of our words and actions, whereby we make other people have better opinion of us and themselves.” That is, we behave politely so as to boost our own social standing among our peers.

But I prefer the definition offered by Brendan Fraser’s Cold-War-era Prepper character in the 1999 feature film Blast from the Past: “Manners are a way of showing other people we care about them.” Signaling that you understand how hard someone else’s situation is certainly makes you better at cocktail parties. But empathy—or “politeness,” or “manners”—isn’t just there at the start of interpersonal relationships; it also holds them together.