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Dive 25: The fine line between Politeness and Kindness
The power of genuine heartfelt gestures
Happy Valentine’s Day, it’s Alvin!
When I was a kid, Valentine’s Day mostly involved exchanging Valentine’s Day cards with friends. The cards had friendly greetings and were meant to show affection. It didn’t have to be romantic affection. It could also be a show of gratitude for friendship.
Adults treat Valentine’s gifts more as romantic gestures. They’re supposed to be mutual exchanges of thoughtful gifts to bask in the relationship. Or in a more traditional setting, the guy showers the girl with romantic gifts to celebrate.
But that’s not exactly the case everywhere.
In Japan, girls give guys chocolate on Valentine’s Day. In 1977, the executive of a Japanese confectionary company thought that guys should reciprocate. Thanks to marketing, that led to the tradition of guys giving girls white chocolate every 14th of March, also known as White Day.
But chocolate isn’t just given to loved ones. It’s given to friends, colleagues and whomever else you want to maintain a relationship. Because if you give everyone you respect chocolates except John, then that sort of implies you don’t respect John. That could ruin a relationship, causing a rift in the community. Japanese society frowns on that. And it’s not just Japan. All societies rooted in Confucianism value group harmony. I grew up in a Hong Kong culture that shares that influence.
To maintain harmony, you would ideally memorize and follow all the written and unwritten rules for every social situation ever. But that’s impossible. So, kids that grew up in these cultures were trained to read the room. Or, as the Japanese say, “read the air,” (空気を読む). Yes, there are plenty of people who didn’t grow up in a Confucian society and know how to read rooms. But it’s foundational in societies where maintaining harmony is a core tenet.
Also, not everyone is equally good at reading the room. It’s a skill. I, for example, have a passable ability. There’ve been times I was pulled aside and told that when someone said X, they really meant Y, but they were trying to be polite. Sometimes I was aware of that, but chose to play dumb to tease the other person. But other times, I was just clueless. It’s why I’m grateful I’m not living in societies that demand it. If you need to tell me something, please just give it to me straight. If you’re hinting at something, I probably won’t get it.
Of course, reading the room is only part of the equation. You also have to follow the room. In social situations where the rules of decorum are unclear, everyone reads the room to figure out what they ought to do so as not to cause a ruckus. And if you still can’t figure out what to do, the next best approach is to be polite.
Politeness vs. Kindness
Every society I know of teaches kids general polite behaviours at a young age. Being polite can be nothing more than following a generally accepted set of rules to maintain harmony with another person. For example, saying hello, goodbye, please and thank you.
Politeness doesn’t have to come from the heart, though.
Politeness can be compelled by forcing a person to follow societal rules. And you can be polite, not for the sake of another, but for the sake of harmony itself.
You can shake someone’s hand when meeting them for the first time because your company requires it, and not because you want to welcome the other person.
You can hold the door open for someone because society says it’s the right thing to do, and not because you want to help someone struggling with their groceries.
You can apologize for a mistake because your parents told you it’s something you must do when you make a mistake, and not because you feel genuine remorse.
This is the key difference between politeness and kindness.
Politeness can be an obligation. Kindness cannot be.
Kindness must come from the heart.
Kindness requires sincerity.
The Prime Minister of Apologies
It’s why I don’t believe in forced apologies, which I call polite apologies. The only difference between someone who doesn’t apologize and someone forced to apologize are the empty words, “I’m sorry.” There’s no remorse or sympathy either way. It’s like being forced to address another by their job title, as I explored in Dive 5. Because if it doesn’t come from the heart, it’s meaningless.
Genuine, kind apologies emerge from remorse, which involves taking responsibility for your own mistakes. It’s personal. This is why apologizing on behalf of a group of people is also meaningless.
This isn’t obvious to everyone. Even the Prime Minister of Canada gets this wrong. Justin Trudeau made six official apologies in three years for past wrongs committed by “Canada.” Yet, he refused to apologize after being caught in a personal scandal. This is a great example of how hard genuine apologies are, and how easy it is to dole out apologies for wrongs that aren’t personal.
And in case you still don’t believe there are people who mistake politeness for kindness, Trudeau was quoted saying,
“apologies for things past are important to make sure that we actually understand and know and share"
No. That’s wrong. Suggesting that apologies “make sure that we…understand” is backwards. How can you apologize for something you don’t understand in the first place? You can’t. But Trudeau issues apologies for political gains. When he does that, the apologies need not be personal, and he’s not trying to express remorse, so he doesn’t need to understand what he’s apologizing for.
Kindness leads to a willingness to understand, which leads to understanding, which leads to remorse, which leads to an apology—an expression of that remorse. That’s the REAL purpose of an apology.
Superficialities vs. Substance
Distinguishing between politeness and kindness is to distinguish between an empty gesture and a meaningful gesture. Something superficial vs. something deep. Because it’s the deep, meaningful stuff that makes life fulfilling, as we explored in Dive 2.
It’s also important to recognize that while politeness is often an indicator of kindness, it’s unreliable because it can be faked easily. I’m not saying we should stop being polite, or that we should stop relying on it. After all, kind people express their kindness by being polite. I’m just saying we need to be aware that politeness differs from kindness.
The people who are tired of exchanging chocolates on Valentine’s Day or White Day? They’re not tired of being kind. They’re tired of being polite out of fear of being a social pariah. They’re tired of obligations done for the sake of politeness and harmony. They’re tired of meaningless gestures. And as I explored in Dive 3, fear-driven kindness is bad for you. What I called “fear-driven kindness” in that dive is akin to politeness in this one.
Being able to distinguish between politeness and kindness helps us identify something genuine vs. something performative. We’re less likely to be disappointed if someone doesn’t do what they said they’d do if we recognized they’re just being polite when they said so. Beyond politicians, this applies to those who are more agreeable, and so are less likely to say things out loud that might have a remote chance of upsetting someone else.
It’s not always easy to tell if someone else is being polite or kind. It takes a bit of reading the air or, at least, body language and facial expressions. I also find that those who are kind tend to go, at least a bit, beyond what the context obliges them to do. It means their kind gestures also tend to be more spontaneous (than regimented).
For example, the other day, someone was exiting an elevator. I started running from afar towards it so I wouldn’t miss it. Seeing this, the person immediately sprinted back to hold the doors open for me. He had no obligation to do that, social or otherwise. We didn’t even know each other. That’s kindness. I thanked him out of gratitude because that was the only functioning elevator at the time. If I missed it, I would’ve had to wait a long time for it to return.
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of kindness vs. politeness. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. Did you grow up in a Confucian culture? Are you good at reading the room? How do you manage? I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful Valentine’s Day. And I’ll see you in the next one.