British politeness is a stereotype that has been around for years. However, it occurred to me the other day that recently I have been noticing just how polite Brits, and regular users of the English Language can be. Most notably, I have realised how unnecessarily polite I can sometimes be. So I decided to write this article outlining some of the most common ways in which politeness is used and whether or not it is necessary.
The most ridiculously extreme politeness I gave a few days ago was on the road (yes, believe it or not, some people can be polite on the road.) So I was driving along and a lorry wanted to move over to avoid travelling in the wrong direction. So I moved into the fast lane to give him room, when going back in front of him he flashed his lights at me so I could clearly see he was ‘saying’ thank you. I raised my hand in the mirror to indicate I had acknowledged his thanks. Then I thought about how small my car was and how big his lorry was and so I flashed my hazards at him, and then just in case he didn’t see that I proceeded to give him a thumbs up out of the window! I mean how ridiculous is that? I wasn’t even the one saying thank you. A bit of politeness goes a long way on the road and it makes a change to see nice, grateful drivers but I was slightly annoyed at myself with my overt politeness. Next time I will just be sticking to a flash of the lights.
This next incident occurred to me in the workplace. I work in a shop at the weekend and it was really, really busy at the tills. So naturally, to be polite, I apologised for the wait the customers experienced. An elderly man came to purchase his goods and I said ‘Ever so sorry for the wait, Sir’ and he replied ‘no you’re not.’ And it made me think about the number of times I had apologised for people’s waiting times. And well to be honest, he was right, I didn’t really mean it. While I agree that it is not nice to have to wait a long time in a queue, I also agree that it was not my fault and therefore I cannot really be sorry. However, this is workplace etiquette and I think this is completely necessary for people to want to come back to the shop. You might not mean it, but most customers appreciate a bit of politeness and it can actually make their wait seem less significant.
This next example is something I picked up on in a Spanish lesson. In Spanish if someone asks you ¿Cómo estás? (How are you?) apparently, just replying ‘I’m fine’ is strange. Spanish people will expect you to tell them if you are not feeling very well, or if you are busy etc… But I can’t think of the last time I actually told someone about any problems I might have had when they asked me how I was. Although, I don’t think we should change this cultural ‘rule’ certain things should be left for doctors, councillors, family and close friends. Personally, I don’t want to be stopped on the street by Tom, Dick and Harry who I haven’t seen for 5 years, and for them to tell me all about their man flu, how their girlfriend broke up with them two weeks ago, their pet goldfish died etc etc… and I am sure they don’t want to hear about my life story either.
Another overly polite thing I have noticed people do is over-apologise. I am prime suspect for this one. I am very rarely late or forgetful so when I am, the part of my brain responsible for apologies goes into overdrive. Just the other day I forgot to reply to a friend, a close friend who really wouldn’t have minded me not responding to them, and when I realised I had forgotten I said sorry, wait for it…5 times, not even joking. One would have sufficed.
There are many more examples of ways in which people can be too polite, and while it is safe to say we are certainly not in the ‘la-di-da, how-do-you-do’ days any more, I do think just sometimes we can go a bit overboard. A word of advice though, I would certainly rather be overly polite than come across as rude.