Archive for the ‘politeness’ Category

When I was in Grade Six, I was precocious and outspoken. My mother, worried that I might be rude at school, asked my teacher if I was a problem in class. “Not at all,” my teacher replied. “He’s always so polite when he corrects me.” He then went on to compare me with a classmate whose corrections were far less diplomatic.

This story, which I heard about hours after it happened, was my first indication of the power of politeness. It taught me that not only could I get away with saying almost anything, so long as I said it politely enough, but that people would listen to a polite comment where they would close their ears a rude one. It’s a perspective that is rare today, when many people consider expressions of anger their right and politeness a form of weakness. Yet the truth is, it’s only one of the advantages that makes politeness (or at least its facade) worth cultivating.

No doubt as a born and bred Canadian, I value politeness more than most people, but I also consider my perspective a pragmatic one. For example, most of the time, you get more cooperation from people with politeness. This observation is especially true when you are dealing with those in the service industry, or others who are usually taken for granted.

Being polite to such people signals that you are viewing them as people, not just bit players in your personal drama. Often, they appreciate the effort enough that if you ask for something unusual, such as a substitution on the menu, they will be give it to you – even if the menu clearly states that no substitutions are allowed. If you are in a store, they are likely to go look in the back for what you want instead of simply telling you that all they have is on the shelf. If the other person is a customs officer, or someone else with potential authority over you, then you will often be forgiven minor infringements of the regulations, simply because you made a small bit of effort and treated them as human.

Should a situation descend into an argument, the appearance of politeness remains useful. Screaming insults may be personally satisfying, but politeness has a way of disarming your opponent. They may shout at you, but shouting at someone who remains polite and apparently calm is strangely unsatisfying. You are not responding the way they expect, and before very long they are likely to either stomp off in frustration or else start listening to you. Almost always, the calm person is the one who controls the situation, and looks best to the audience – and, in the end, it is their perspective and solutions that are adopted.

If all else fails, you can always adopt the kind of icy politeness that the upper class English are so good at – the kind that suggests it is beneath your dignity to argue with your opponent, and that to talk to them at all is a major concession on your part. Better yet, if you can throw in the impression that the politeness is an effort and you are near to going berserk, politeness can be more unsettling than screaming and breaking chairs, for the simple reason that you are leaving your anger to your opponent’s imagination, and what is imagined is frequently more unsettling than what is actually observed.

Politeness in these circumstances takes practice, and might even be against your natural inclination. But the reality is that politeness is far less passive than most people imagine. Treat it as a piece of meta-communication or body language, and few tactics are more successful.

Far from being a sign of weakness, politeness signals that you are the one in control, the pleasant and the logical one, the mature person where others are acting as children. The fact that few of your opponents will ever realize how you are outgaming them only makes your choice of tactics that much more satisfying.


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Early this week, developer Sarah Sharp complained about lack of politeness on the Linux kernel mailing list, singling out Linus Torvalds as a prime example of rudeness. Having not persuaded many people, she took her complaints public. Soon dozen of bloggers were condemning Torvalds, and hundreds of commenters were either joining in the condemnation or defending him. But, looking at all the responses, I wonder what everyone imagined they were doing. Feeling good about themselves, maybe?

Don’t get me wrong – as an ex-university instructor, who used to give out criticism to students, I know that rudeness is a poor way to motivate people to improve. They’re more likely to resent the criticism than to change their ways. True, Torvalds is more interested in issues than people, and seems to accept people answering his rudeness with their own, but I still suspect that the Linux kernel is a successful project despite his manner, not because of it.

However, the difference between me and the people publicly expressing outrage is that, as fond as I am of expressing my opinions (that is, after all, what I get paid for), I don’t make the mistake of believing that my opinion matters. It certainly isn’t going to improve the tone of the kernel list.

Condemning Torvalds in public may satisfy the need for self-expression. It may publicly align you with the forces of Progress and Good. However, one thing it will never do is to improve civility within the kernel project. Even if thousands of people express their outrage, it won’t do anything.

In every way imaginable, Torvalds is immune to such criticism. If nothing else, I doubt he reads it. Furthermore, he rationalizes by assuming a dichotomy between effective bluntness and politeness that, for all its falseness, gives him no reason to consider reforming himself (although he might welcome a good argument as amusing).

But how anyone imagines him vulnerable to public criticism is beyond me. He has never been before. The kernel is his project, and few developers are going to work on a fork in preference to the cachet of working with Linux.

Even pressuring him through the Linux Foundation, his nominal employer, has no chance of success. Sponsoring Torvalds legitimizes the Linux Foundation, which means that it needs him far more than he needs it. In the unlikely event that the Linux Foundation did try to chastise him, as a mufti-millionaire he can walk away any time he pleases.

In the end, being outraged by Torvalds’ rudeness is no more than elaboration on the idea that you are helping world hunger or some other cause by clicking Like on a Facebook link. It’s easy to do, and leaves you pleased with yourself, but you have confused an expression of concern with effective action.

The Internet allows considerable freedom of speech, and the free software community often has a democratic appearance. However, neither of these facts means that all of us have an equal say in every situation. In this case, the only people whose opinion matters are those who have any chance of making a change – kernel contributors.

Instead of mouthing off in public, if you really want change on the kernel list, lobby kernel contributors, especially Torvalds’ lieutenants. If you are a kernel contributor, come out in support of a code of conduct, and try to enlist other contributors. None of these actions have any guarantee of success, but they have a far greater chance of encouraging change than saying, “Me, too!” in public.

Put so bluntly, the choice of tactics sounds obvious. But the fact that so many seem to think that condemning politeness is enough to cause change suggests that, on some levels, for most people it is not at all obvious. In the end, campaigning for change is slow and unglamorous, and lacks the immediate satisfaction of posturing as rebel via a token gesture, yet it has two unarguable advantages – it is unhypocritical, and it just might work.

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