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Surprising Science

Why Good Manners Are Bad for You

It’s not always best to be polite. Steering around the truth to spare someone’s feelings can cause confusion and even have dire consequences when a person’s safety is at risk. 

What’s the Latest Development?

When we are forced to point out someone’s mistake or bad choice, we resort to ‘politeness strategies’, says a new psychological study. That means being vague or evasive in order to spare someone’s feelings. While being polite can smooth over potential conflict, it can also make professional situations less clear. “Examples include a nurse failing to spell out a doctor’s potential error to avoid embarrassment, or an air controller lacking assertiveness with a pilot in trouble.” 

What’s the Big Idea?

Navigating vague statements with subtle meanings taxes our brains more than understanding a simple, direct sentence. This ultimately leaves us in doubt about the true meaning of the polite remark while distracting us from the task at hand. “Politeness can become problematic when it causes us to ­sacrifice clarity,” says Jean-Francois Bonnefon, of the University of Toulouse in France. “This confusion is especially likely to occur in high-stakes situations, the very situations in which we are most likely to use politeness strategies.”


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