How to stop being polite and start getting real
October 22, 2014 6:08 AM   Subscribe

I consider myself an exceedingly polite and considerate person, but often this makes me seem overly formal and has the (unintended?) effect of keeping people at arms' length. How can I reduce this behavior and act more casual and normal with people?

This came to my attention after reading an extremely insightful quote from an interview with Mary Karr about David Foster Wallace. She says:
It’s funny, I remember Zadie Smith talked to me about him and saying, “He was always so polite,” and so genteel. And anybody who knew David knew that that’s almost like a fake thing that he put on. When I first met him; he started calling me “Ms. Karr." ... And I was almost like, “Are you fucking with me?” You know, I’m like five years older than you and you’re calling me Ms. Karr? Do I look like your mother? And it was almost like this faux thing he would do that looks like he’s trying to ingratiate himself but actually it’s a way to try to keep you away. It’s a way to box you off into this thing; it’s this über-solicitousness that is as far from who he actually is.
This describes me to a T, especially the bolded part, and I have grown to hate it. I have a extremely hard time transitioning from friendly-acquaintance to actual friend, and I feel like this behavior is a big part of it. I couldn't really tell you if it's an intentional defense strategy or not, since I've been like this basically my whole life - but I do know that I have trouble being vulnerable and intimate with people, so probably this behavior plays into that. I had a tumultuous childhood and was frequently put in a people-pleasing/peacemaker role, which may contribute to the issue. I'm also somewhere on the spectrum and speak relatively formally even when I'm not trying to, so I imagine that doesn't help either.

Has anyone else overcome this sort of behavior? How can I stop worrying about being so polite and considerate (and possibly coming across as disingenuous even when I'm completely sincere) all the time and act more ... human?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Is this something that others have noticed and commented on or is this something that you have decided to be sensitive about? I, too, am sometimes considered too polite and standoffish. There have been a few crude people that I've had to work with who have made comments about it. These are people that I would never want to be around so they were probably right that I used my manners to keep myself away from them. The people that I want to be around love my gentle nature and they trust me. It took me a really long time to find these people, though. The world that we live in is full of crass, loud people. Decide who you want to be around and then be around them. Don't change for the few that make you feel less than human.
posted by myselfasme at 6:26 AM on October 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

extremely hard time transitioning from friendly-acquaintance to actual friend
I have trouble being vulnerable and intimate with people

The trick to becoming better friends with people is to act as though you're already better friends. If you're acquaintances, the next step would be "friends" - so invite the person out to do things, as though they were your friend already. If you're friends and want to move to "close friends" then confide in them about something (some thing from your past or an issue you're struggling with presently), as though you were already close friends. Start small, something that wouldn't be the end of the world if it got around, but still something that not everyone knows.

You have to just do it. It's like going into the ocean when it's a little too cold -- if you slowly wade in, each step is excruciating; but if you just dive under the water you acclimate much faster. Sure, sometimes you step on a jellyfish or get water up your nose, but most of the time you end up just having an awesome swim in the ocean.
posted by melissasaurus at 6:27 AM on October 22, 2014 [13 favorites]

I don't think you need to stop being polite. The keeping people at arm's length thing is separate from being polite. Politeness is about making other people comfortable and respecting their boundaries. You could push people away just as easily with brashness or rudeness as you believe you are doing with formality and politeness.

I think it's the trouble with being vulnerable part that you really need to work on... and you can still do that within the bounds of politeness. My only advice for that is to just take it slow - basically you make yourself a little more vulnerable and see if the other person responds appropriately. But you need to do it in stages - if you're on "Crazy weather we're having!" terms with someone, don't go straight to "Let me tell you the specifics of my tumultuous childhood!" Maybe start with "Man, it is hard to prioritize family and friends during the holidays, amirite?" Or maybe the way you want to open up a little *is* telling a saucy joke or something.

Also, I don't know that this really applies to your situation, but I just liked it: How To Be Polite.
posted by mskyle at 6:41 AM on October 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

Are interactions with other people high-stress moments for you? Do you feel uncomfortable or on edge when you're talking to somebody? It sounds to me like at least part of the issue is that you are just plain uncomfortable while having these interactions, and your way of dealing with that is to resort to this politeness stuff to try to appear more normal/casual/appropriate, etc.

The problem with feeling uncomfortable when you're having a conversation with someone is that they pick up on it and it makes them uncomfortable, too. Then you pick up on their discomfort and it makes you feel even more uncomfortable, and so on and so forth. It's a negative cycle and we've all been there before. You need to find a way to feel comfortable when interacting with other people. This will allow you to be more truly yourself, and you won't have to use the politeness mask as a shield.

Becoming more comfortable with yourself will probably require both long-term strategies as well as short-term "in-the-moment" strategies (the ones you use when you're actually in the scary oh-my-god-I'm-talking-to-someone-I-hope-I-don't-act-weird situation that you describe).

Long term I'd do the following:
1. Find some kind of physical outlet for your negative/anxious energy that you participate in regularly. This might be hiking, running, strolling, team sports, weight-lifting, boxing, karate, swimming, yoga, whatever. It just needs to be a way to release bad energy and to let in good, calm energy.
2. Practice positive self-talk.
3. Keep in touch with any friends or relatives who you feel really know and love you for who you are.

In the scary/awkward conversation moments, I'd employ these short-term strategies:
1. Remember that the person you're talking to is probably really busy thinking mostly about themselves and their own issues. After having an interaction with you, most people probably won't even be able to recall your eye-color or what type of shoes you were wearing. This is because they're not paying as much attention to you as they are to themselves. This is not to make you feel unimportant, just to remind you that the stakes are not as high as they may seem and not everyone is judging you at all times.
2. Breathe deeply. Relax your shoulders and jaw. We hold tension in these places when we're anxious, and letting go of the tension helps us to feel more calm and at ease. A relaxed body will project confidence in yourself to the other person, and they'll relax more, too. Then you get to feel even more relaxed. This is the opposite of the negative cycle of discomfort I described above.
3. If you enjoy having a drink every now and then, practice having calm, honest, relaxed interactions with other people over a few drinks. Alcohol is a nice social lubricant. It allows you to let go of some of your anxiety and to open up a bit more. Caveats: I'm not suggesting that you resort to drinking to solve this problem. The point is to practice your skills in a lower-pressure environment and then transfer the skills to everyday interactions. If you have any issues with alcohol, this suggestion is obviously not for you.

I know people who do the politeness thing you describe. They are nice people, and I like them, but I feel sad for them because I can tell that they are not comfortable just being who they are -- good, bad, and otherwise. What a shame! Nothing is more fascinating than getting a window into another person's reality through conversation, and nothing makes us feel more bonded to another person than knowing that neither one of us is perfect. In the words of my hero Mister Rogers: "You always make each day a special day by just being yourself. There's only one person in the whole world like you. And people can like you, exactly as you are."
posted by RingerChopChop at 6:58 AM on October 22, 2014 [8 favorites]

I know people like this, and I think sometimes I'm like this myself. It often comes from a letter-of-the-law approach to politeness: always say "please" and "thank you," always let the other person go first, and you're being polite. It's the sort of politeness we were taught as children, all rules and no explanations, and we often associate it with the other formal, uncomfortable things we had to do as children in an adult environment: wear this stiff dressy outfit, eat this boring bitter grown-up food, write a thank-you letter to your grandma even though you don't like the sweater she gave you, no running in the store, no reading at the table, yes you have to, no you're not allowed. All of this places an emphasis on politeness as a formal unpleasant requirement, and completely misses the art of building human relationships.

Forget about politeness and aim for kindness. Forget about being proper or correct, and think about what would make the other person feel at ease. It's a lot harder to do, because although there are guidelines there are no hard rules, and it requires learning how to read people and adjust your actions for different situations. But the one question you should always be asking yourself stays roughly the same: how can I help this person feel welcome, valued, appreciated?

It's a long process and requires a lot of practice and attention, and there are no shortcuts, but it does get easier with time. A good way to start is by analyzing all the rules of politeness you know of, and figuring out why they're there. You write the thank-you letter to Grandma because she made the effort to pick out that sweater, and you want to show her you appreciate the gift. You address people as Mr. Lastname instead of Joe because it's... respectful? and... okay, that's sort of an outdated rule that no longer makes sense, maybe it's best to scuttle it.

On preview, RingerChopChop has an excellent point. Your goal is to make other people comfortable around you, and in order to do so you need to be comfortable yourself.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:12 AM on October 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

If other people comment on this it does not mean that they are crass rude people.

A fellow with this same problem, minus the "somewhere on the spectrum", part was my assistant for three months this year. He was incredibly polite. It slowed me down. Every transaction was bracketed with polite distancing that wasted my focus and time.
Enters office
-hi, do you need xyz?
- yes, as soon as possible
-alright, I will get xyz back you as soon as possible, see you soon
-ok thanks
Leaves office

Instead of
Enters office
-Do you need xyz?
-yes as soon as possible
leaves office

I did finally talk to him about it. Not as a why are you weird thing but as a 'this is getting my way' thing and he was able to tone it down. It turns out that he was coming from a community outreach and research environment where being ultra polite really paid off in relationships and results. He left after 3 months to go to medical school. On a full scholarship. Brilliant kid, nice guy and wasted playing assistant.

Here's the thing. Being polite is not about words. It is about making people feel comfortable. If you are making people uncomfortable with your language, that's not polite. Focus on that idea and see if that helps.
posted by SLC Mom at 7:16 AM on October 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Take a risk and share something personal. My guess is what you think is personal information is most people's average information. I'm like this too.

Allow the conversation to rest on you for a bit. Slowly get comfortable receiving genuine attention.

I have a friend who generally assumes people are trustworthy until she's proven wrong. She's fairly resilient, so the rare cases where she is proven wrong doesn't hurt her very much, as she realizes that it's the other person who was mistaken, and not her. My guess is when you feel like your trust was violated (and it might be something very small, like them making a small joke or not understanding how important something is to you) then the hurt feelings are quite large in comparison. So re-evaluate those times where you do feel a little taken aback and ease up on the sensitivity pedal if you can. If you can trust that in most circumstances people are not actively looking for your most vulnerable weakness point then you will feel a lot more comfortable.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:20 AM on October 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

The best advice I can give you is not to bounce to the opposite extreme.

Politeness is indeed a ploy, an artifice. And it's nice to think that all artifice can be purged in one's social interactions, but the fact is that it can't (except between some very long-married couples, and most of them would admit that they would gladly restore a little artifice if they could somehow make entropy run that way). Even the most super-friendly, super-warm, super informal people are putting on an act. "Not putting on an act" is an act! In fact, it's one of the most act-ish acts of all.

Your current act isn't feeling right for you. Fine, adjust. But don't imagine you're putting an end to acting, to artifice (politeness is far from the only social gambit!). You're just adjusting it a bit. Just don't be extreme. Again, if you acknowledge that you're honing an act rather than imagine you're abandoning artifice, this will help you avoid drifting to an opposite extreme with unpleasant results.
posted by Quisp Lover at 8:24 AM on October 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

Specifically to the acquaintance-to-friend transition, I'd be curious curious which channels you're interacting with folks on (just face to face? social media? email? phone?), and if you feel like you're equally formal on all of them or not. I find that sometimes I can bridge that transition a lot better by moving from casual interaction to the occasional friendly facebook messages/texts/what have you (in addition to the aforementioned actually doing stuff with people), but I'm unclear if you have equal trouble across the board or not.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:49 AM on October 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

You talked a lot in this post about things you don't like about your behavior, but what do you want to change it to? Do you want to wear your heart on your sleeve? Be more impulsive? You just seem like you're really beating up on yourself for a minor personality quirk.

I don't know. You may be able to tweak how you behave in some situations, or get more comfortable opening up to people if you think this is hurting you in your career or personal life. But I don't think you should so completely dismiss your own nature, to the point of even saying you aren't "human" enough. You are human! So very human. Please don't try to problematize your personality.

For what it's worth, I know for a fact that many people find me intolerable or off-putting for several reasons that have nothing to do with my worth has a human being. Things like, I like to talk about subjects most people find boring, instead of summarizing television shows we have both seen. I have in the past let that get me down, and avoided social contact because I was afraid I couldn't reign it in enough for someone else's taste. I think it's important to accept your natural inclination and not try to conform to what you think is "normal."

As long as you aren't threatening people or acting in a malicious manner, and as long as you are a generally empathic person who tries to treat others with respect, you're probably doing fine. You're just human. You have to throw up your hands at some point and accept that some people, maybe a lot of people, just aren't going to like you.
posted by deathpanels at 9:06 AM on October 22, 2014 [6 favorites]

Heavier stuff:

- You don't have to be friends with everybody. I agree with everybody saying that being overly polite to keep people at arms length can be a perfectly healthy thing if, say, you know those people tend to exaggerate and spread rumors or have not been reliably considerate to you in the past.

- Get in touch with what you actually want and ask for that; you can do this politely. Quit trying so hard to make people like you. Make yourself happy and let them make up their own minds about you.

Easy to-dos:

- Start by sharing small bad things about yourself, if you aren't. Like, this weather is getting me down / I'm having a hard time with this project. This opens the door for people to share back.

- Curse words are an easy shortcut to informality and showing a bit of your humanity. Use judiciously.
posted by momus_window at 9:22 AM on October 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

One of my nieces told me, "Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don't say it mean."
posted by trinity8-director at 10:19 AM on October 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

You are right, there is a big difference in formality in approach based on how close we are to someone or want to be. (Also, I have two very dear friends who both say they run "cool" and tend to be formal even after years of friendship.)

The nice thing about formality and politeness is that they afford emotional space to other people. That's, it is true, very considerate compared to the much more common practice of oversharing intimate details with everyone.

There are two fairly easy ways to move from a formal to a friendlier approach. One is with (gentle) humor, particularly when poked at yourself or something neutral and not connected to the person you don't yet know well. The other is to ask questions about things that most people are comfortable talking about, like their tastes, and listen to the answers, as well as share some of that about yourself.

The big difference between acquaintances and people we know/love deeply and well, including our best friends, tends to be a lowering of barriers. It is fine and normal to get there gradually with people who aren't actually members of your family.
posted by bearwife at 1:00 PM on October 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ha, I recognise this! I've had the same problem, although for different reasons. (I am the daughter of a priest and a schoolteacher, so of course I was raised to politely pass hors d'ouvres at parties and never ever say anything interesting.)

I think you'll be fine: that forming the intent to change on this kind of thing is actually half the battle, and the change itself will now come naturally. To hurry it along, maybe do a rational analysis. Like "if I hug this person and tell an embarrassing story, maybe they don't love that and we don't become good friends. If I *don't* hug/tell, I've kept them at arms-length and we don't become good friends anyway. So I may as well be myself, so we have a shot at being friends." That kind of thing.

(I don't mean to suggest that your orientation should be supplicatory: it totally should not. You should not be aiming to please. You should be aiming to expose more of yourself, good and bad. People like people who are interesting, and you can't be interesting if you're always playing it super-safe. Also you don't need to stop being formal: you can be formal-and-sardonic or formal-and-judicious or formal-and-foppish: whatever is really you :))
posted by Susan PG at 6:48 PM on October 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

For me, it sometimes helps to have friends who are both open and warm, and to hang out with them alone. If we're talking about our day and he follows up with "I've been wondering whether or not to marry my girlfriend," conversation gets real, fast. I appreciate that greatly, and it helps me relate my experiences, which paint me as a complicated human being.

It also takes time to discern between disclosing and vulnerable. It's easy to be the type of person who "just tells it like it is", but that, to me, is equally shallow. It appears open and welcoming at first because, hey, this person is talking about how they're annoyed at someone else! That's refreshing because it goes beyond polite conversation about the weather! But that often boils down to "Look how right I am and how awful everyone else is," and I'd rather talk to someone who is open to reconsidering their beliefs and tell stories about their inner life.

I wouldn't focus so much on ditching politeness as noticing when you have a story or an emotion, and finding a way to put that out there. Do it as an experiment to watch how people react. In my experience, if someone goes "whoa, whoa! That's not Mr./Ms. Manners we all know", that person has you pigeonholed as a caricature, and may not be trustworthy with your intimacy. But if that person says "Hey, that's interesting. How do you feel about that? That reminds me of one time...", go with it.

Good luck. It's a risk to open up, and it's damn hard to be vulnerable when you're unsure how it will be received. You'll quickly find out which acquaintances will make good friends based on how comfortable you feel telling your experiences and emotions.
posted by Turkey Glue at 6:49 PM on October 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I started noticing better socializing results when I started speaking more plainly. I realized that people found it off putting or fake when I would phrase things in certain ways. I'm a compulsive reader and one thing I was doing was phrasing things like I was in one of the books I read, which tended to be sci-fi, humor, or old british stuff. Partly because I thought it was cool and/or funny to imagine that I was in that world, and partly because reading a bunch of stilted language sort of makes you think in that stilted language. But I realized that nobody else was getting the joke.

So what I did was slow down a bit in conversation and think of the simplest, most straightforward way to say what I wanted to say. I make sure that I'm not imagining myself in some other situation, that I'm grounded in reality before speaking. I don't mean that I'm dumbing things down for people or condescending to them, because I'm not. I'm just getting rid of the extraneous bullshit.

If you're trying to decide between calling someone Mr. or Ms. Whoever and just using their first name, you'll probably have to ask them. Just being simple, direct, clear, and speaking their language, rather than adopting some conversational 'pose' like being jokey or putting on airs. This also results in you being more honest, which removes some of the stress of pretending and makes you more relaxed, like the 'dive in vs. wade in' approach to getting in cold water that melissasaurus mentioned, and the 'politeness is making people feel comfortable' thing that SLC Mom mentioned.
posted by the big lizard at 4:29 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

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