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You May Not Be as Polite as You Believe You Are

Relationships with people you don’t know all that well often require that you add an extra layer of care to your communication when touchy subjects arise. Perhaps you’re at a gathering of your partner’s friends and, as hard as you try, you can’t find a tactful way to say that you can’t stand the cheese spread the host has so proudly displayed. You can’t even get past the first morsel without wanting to spit it out into your napkin. You can see from the host’s facial expression that they’re expecting a great deal of oohing and aahing out of you, so you try your best to (a) compliment them while (b) not asking for more.

Unfortunately, it seems as though your effort to be polite has fallen far short of its mark. The host backs away, clearly offended by your lack of enthusiasm. Is there a way you could have more successfully maneuvered through this difficult situation?

Face-Saving and the Theory of Politeness

According to a new study by the University of Aberdeen’s Mingyuan Chu and colleagues (2022), preserving another person’s “face” is at the heart of polite communication. You’ve undoubtedly used the expression “saving face,” but more formally, “failures in face management can lead to social interaction difficulties, misunderstandings, and even conflict.” This is because, according to the "theory of politeness," “face is fragile and subject to constant threat during social interaction”. What does all of this mean?

The Language and Body Language of Politeness

The Aberdeen researchers note that polite communication in part requires using the right choice of words as well as the reinforcement of those words with body language and other gestures. The most frequently offered polite verbal statement is indirect. Instead of saying “Ugh, I hated that cheese spread,” you would instead say something to the effect of “There are so many options for cheese spreads and each one has its unique qualities.” You haven’t commented on this particular cheese spread’s unique qualities.

Another way to maintain your interaction partner’s face is to use what Chu et al. refer to as probability statements with words such as “possibly” or a hedging term such as “uh,” “you know,” or “I mean.” These options have the advantage of allowing you to temper a critical comment because they signal a lack of commitment to whatever opinion you’re about to proffer. By themselves, however, they might need some body language to complete the operation.

Turning now to body language, the four options that the Aberdeen researchers investigated include:

  1. Revealing your palm perhaps with a shoulder shrug

  2. Tilting your head as a way to communicate uncertainty

  3. Making a shrug expression with your face by raising your eyebrows and cheeks

  4. Looking away perhaps while also saying “you know,” or “like.”

As you visualize yourself using these nonverbal cues, you might also think about how you react when others use them with you. Would any of them help you feel less offended by someone’s critical observation about you? Chu et al. conducted a series of six experiments (all on undergraduate samples) to find out which cues (verbal and nonverbal) were most likely to be regarded as indirect by listeners.

Studying Politeness in the Lab

The research team obtained ratings of indirect messages in scenarios involving the delivery of bad news such as Person A telling Person B that they failed to make a sports team. By varying the exact cues provided, Chu et al. could determine which had the strongest impact on the chances of a message being rated as indirect (vs. being seen as a lie, a direct message, or neutral). Throughout the experiments, the researchers controlled for the probability of chance ratings and also asked raters to provide indications of their confidence in their ratings. The authors registered their data and hypotheses in the open science framework, ensuring that their findings could both be replicated and viewed transparently by others in the research community.

In synthesizing all of the analyzes, the authors were able to conclude that politeness was greatest when both verbal and nonverbal cues were included in the scenarios. These included a combination of uncertainty terms (e.g. “like”), discourse markers, and head tilt. Of the nonverbal cues, only head tilt signaled an indirect message. If you had to choose, then, it seems like a simple set of your head to the side as you speak would be your most successful path. As the authors note, head tilt “serves as a communicative tool for face-saving and signifies politeness in indirect replies”

There’s More to the Politeness Story

Not investigated in the Aberdeen study, but perhaps just as important, is how you speak as well as the words you use in the verbal communication channel to convey politeness. Cues include changes in pitch, loudness, duration of the utterance, and voice quality. A rising pitch is seen as ruder than a falling pitch (i.e. the higher your voice the ruder you seem).

There is also another factor known as the “maxim of relevance,” in which a response that doesn’t match the question can be seen as impolite no matter how you word it or how much you tilt your head. Thinking back on the cheese spread, imagine if your answer to the question “How do you like the spread?” was “I do like that tablecloth.”

To sum up, apart from what you say and how you say it, you may find it nice to know that a simple tilt of the head may be all it takes to help foster the fulfillment of those whose faces you’d like to preserve.

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