Polite vs. Kind: Different Animals
Politeness is demanded from without. Kindness emanates from within. One is a manifestation of societal mistrust. The other is guided by a moral compass.
Yesterday, I received an email from an old work colleague in NYC. Bob is one of the kindest men I know; and while I never asked him directly, his accent suggests he’s a born-and-raised Brooklynite — one I bump into often, in the borough.
Bob had just read the piece I wrote on Civility, in which I maligned the death of chivalry and manners; and that how we treated one another wasn’t in any way about quaint formalities, but rather, it is reflective of our values, as a community or society. Moreover, I wrote, those values, enacted, are in service of “creating a better world — a place of tolerance, gratitude, kindness and connection.”
In that sense, I was contrasting authentic, values-driven kindness from the artifice of false politeness. After receiving his note, I decided to do a deeper dive into the subject.
Bob wrote to tell me that the sentiments resonated with him, as a New Yorker married to a Midwesterner. He relayed that his wife was appalled by how rude New Yorkers were, when she moved with him there after his college years in the heartland. He then added:
“However, manners are often a veneer that obscures people’s truer self. Small town Illinois was very polite, yet racist and intolerant. Although many New Yorkers lack social skills, they’re generally accepting of others. Good manners make for more pleasant daily interactions, but values define a human being.”
This was, in my view, a clear-eyed assessment of the differences between polite and kind. They are very different animals, in that the underlying foundations of each are, in a sense, polar opposites.
His timing was interesting, because just last week I wrote about the differences between power and strength, much along the same lines. In that article, I explained how power is a selfish and shallow act, whereas strength is generous, and deep. A similar distinction could be drawn between politeness and kindness.
Polite is, in essence, how one acts in the absence of a connection with others. It is the outward expression of decorum, courtesy, propriety. We are almost never polite with our close friends, or family. In fact, one of the defining differences between those closest to us, and those with whom we transact more shallowly, is that we feel we can be ourselves with our confidantes, and have the confidence that we will be accepted, warts and all. There is no need for politeness, because our relationships are deeper than what politeness confers among strangers. And what politeness confers — demands, in a sense — is that we act in a prescribed manner that is considered socially and artificially sanitized and offense-free, to make our days more tolerable among strangers. Politeness, as Bob intuited, is a veneer, and has no relationship to a person’s values. When we are our veneer-less selves, at the very least, “what you see is what you get”.
I’d argue that politeness is largely an act of mistrust. How? Well, again, we drop our veneer when we know and trust someone enough to let them see us as we are. Politeness is a shield, and we only use shields when we fear being attacked. We don’t wear them at home, and we don’t wear them with friends. This shield takes the form of a societal contract. It comes from the same place as the underlying reasons societies create—and interact in accordance with—the Laws of the Land, with its legions of enforcers: the politicians, police and lawyers that proliferate, and about whom we hear — too much, in my view — every day, in our social forums. In mandating a code of conduct, we also empower citizens everywhere to ‘police’ one another’s behavior, turning them into referees, or judges. If we trusted one another, not only to do what’s right by the community, but as critically, to act in accordance with a mutually empowering value system, there would be no need for politicians, police, lawyers or politeness. We would discuss and manage our differences openly, rather than hiding behind a veil of temperance, while revealing how we truly feel behind one another’s backs. Only one of these behaviors is kind, because only one of them—open discourse, even when it’s uncomfortable—can lead to resolution, and advancement. Polite people complain privately, giving nothing to others; while kind people confront one another sometimes, because doing so can make things better. Once upon a time, when we lived in tribes and we failed to self-regulate adequately, we entrusted a wizened council or an elder to adjudicate; but regardless, we were always honest and accountable to one another when one of us fell, or stepped outside of the lines that served the greater good.
I’d argue that the existence of laws, arbiters, enforcers and codes of conduct — politeness — are emblematic of our societal failure to act with integrity and virtue, and at the same time in accordance with our individual truths, as expressed by our choices, capacities and distinct personalities. Polite society hides behind laws and enforcers, rather than sharing misgivings and working through differences to resolve our disconnects with one another directly. In shirking that responsibility, polite society effectively outsources the heavy lift of conflict resolution to so-called ‘neutral’ third-parties, without even trying. This is, in my view, an act not only of interpersonal laziness, but also of unkindness, because in doing so, we effectively turn our backs on one another. This is, in itself, another sign of societal failure.
The reality is that we no longer trust one another. Not one bit. Our news media is almost exclusively about transgression after transgression, and judgment after judgment. We primarily report, discuss and debate reason after reason for mistrusting one another, and we use widely reported statistics to justify our posturing and our mistrust, at home and when we travel. Travel, it should be said, is now near-synonymous with fanny packs, hotel safes and guides who are used as often for safety as they are for their wisdom. These things, like police and lawyers, are symptomatic of societies that feel uncomfortable not just with others, but within themselves. Said another way, they are evidence of inter-human bankruptcy.
Somehow, we chose to institutionalize societal mistrust with legally binding decorum, aka politeness. Today, as long as we act permissibly with one another, we are left alone. But if we break that trust by acting beyond the pale — according to our true nature, however benign (jaywalking) or unconscionable (murder) it may be — then the Law and its enforcers have something to say about it, and the court of public opinion clucks its communal tongue, taking to the airwaves and the gossip mills to wax about the ‘breach of the acceptable’.
Kindness is a different animal altogether. It doesn’t manifest because someone told us to. Rather, it emanates from within, because kindness isn’t what we do, it’s actually who we are. Kind people act with care because doing so aligns with their values; and when they misstep, as all humans are wont to do at times, those around them act reciprocally, because they, too, care—if not directly for the transgressor, then for the type of society in which they wish to live. Said another way, when kind people slip up, other truly kind people step in, not because of how they were treated, but because they are internally driven by kindness, and manifest it outwardly. Bluntly, they don’t avoid the heavy lift just because it’s easier and they can justify doing so. Thus kind communities don’t need laws and arbiters, because one of their chief values is the wellbeing of those around them, wherein kind people invest of themselves—their time and emotional energy—in order to build the society in which they wish to live. In fact, while both polite and kind people act outwardly toward one another in a seemingly ethical manner, the polite actors only do so to avoid potential discomfort, under the assumption that they will be treated reciprocally, even if deep down, they feel animosity toward the recipient of their diplomacy, like the people that Bob cited from his experiences in the Midwest. This form of politeness is an act of duplicity. The kind actor, by contrast, acts ethically because it is his or her true nature to do so, whether or not the gestures are returned in kind.
Put differently, politeness is dishonest, while kindness is authentic.
Sometimes, kind people goof up and/or hurt others. If or when they discover this, they are driven internally by a desire to resolve and repair their transgressions. By contrast, polite people may not slip up as much because they live within a strict code of conduct, but this in no way guarantees their kindness, or even their ability to self-reflect, and mature, as humans.
Benjamin Franklin once said, “He that has done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
Franklin understood that kindness is an outward manifestation of a moral and virtuous internal state, and that obligation — in the form of politeness (and its cousins, propriety and correctness) — are externally mandated veils, requiring nothing within us to drive them.
Lemony Snicket — aka Daniel Handler — cheekily said:
“As I am sure you know, when people say ‘It’s my pleasure,’ they usually mean something along the lines of, ‘There’s nothing on Earth I would rather do less.’”
A century earlier, French essayist Paul Valery wrote, “Politeness is organized indifference.” Leave it to the French to say it like it is, without fear of offense. Like New Yorkers, one would never accuse the French of being a polite society. That’s for their rule-loving neighbors, the English, to submit, ‘stiff upper lip’ and all. In her book The Thirteenth Tale, English author Diane Setterfield wrote in plain language, “Politeness. Now there’s a poor man’s virtue if ever there was one. What’s so admirable about inoffensiveness, I should like to know. After all, it’s easily achieved. One needs no particular talent to be polite. On the contrary, being nice is what’s left when you’ve failed at everything else.” She then adds, “People with ambition don’t give a damn what other people think about them.”
I would add that while people with ambition don’t give a damn about what others think of them, they do give a damn about other people—hence their investment of kindness. And while there’s no guarantee of such an investment, there are more than a handful of kind people who also jaywalk. One has nothing to do with the other.
Kindness and politeness have nothing in common. On its subject webpage, Wikipedia states, “In Book II of Rhetoric, Aristotle defines kindness as “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped”. Nietzsche considered kindness and love to be the “most curative herbs and agents in human intercourse”.”
To Bob’s point, New Yorkers are not polite. In fact, more than a few readers likely laughed a little at that sentence. “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” said Dustin Hoffman’s alter ego, NYC con man ‘Ratso’ in 1969’s seminal movie, Midnight Cowboy, as he walked alongside his polite, tassle-and-cowboy-hat-adorned Texan friend, Joe Buck, played by John Voigt. Everybody knows New Yorkers to be more than a little bit like Ratso.
But under the bluster, lurks a truly kind populace.
New Yorker staff writer and California transplant Joan Acocella penned an essay for Smithsonian Magazine in 2008 in appraisal of her adopted home. In describing New Yorkers’ kindness, she wrote that they “make less separation between private and public life. That is, they act on the street as they do in private. In the United States today, public behavior is ruled by a kind of compulsory cheer that people probably picked up from television and advertising and that coats their transactions in a smooth, shiny glaze… New Yorkers have not yet gotten the knack of this.”
It’s not just the “compulsory cheer”. The alarming rise of intolerance, sensitivity and perceived offense, on campuses and in the streets alike—especially among Millennials and Gen Z—is, not just in this author’s view, a growing and unhealthy form of censorship. No less than the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review have raised a red flag about this subject, where extreme sensitivity on campuses that lead to rescinded invitations to speakers deemed offensive is, per se, an act of censorship, and an affront to the First Amendment of the Constitution. They refer to it as Postmodern Censorship Theory.
Anyhow, Acocella goes on:
“It is said that New Yorkers are rude, but I think what people mean by that is that New Yorkers are more familiar. The man who waits on you in the delicatessen is likely to call you sweetheart. (Feminists have gotten used to this.) People on the bus will say, “I have the same handbag as you. How much did you pay?” And if they don’t like the way you are treating your children, they will tell you.”
She gives several other examples that point to familiarity and tolerance, all of which obviate the need for politeness. As I said earlier, we treat those closest to us to the experience our true selves, not the veil of something we are not, deep down.
One more excerpt:
“Why are New Yorkers like this? It goes against psychological principles. Psychologists tell us that the more stimuli people are bombarded with, the more they will recede into themselves and ignore others. So why is it that New Yorkers, who are certainly confronted with enough stimuli, do the opposite? I have already given a few possible answers, but here’s one more: the special difficulties of life in New York — the small apartments, the struggle for a seat on the bus or a table at a restaurant — seem to breed a sense of common cause. When New Yorkers see a stranger, they don’t think, “I don’t know you.” They think, “I know you. I know your problems — they’re the same as mine — and furthermore we have the same handbag.” So that’s how they treat you.”
It’s not bad to be polite, but I only believe that to be true if it comes from a place of authenticity. And the moment it does, I’d counter that it’s no longer an act of superficial politeness, but rather of foundational — virtuous — kindness. Societies that rely on lawyers, lawmakers and enforcers to cow people into submission may succeed out of the collective fear they instill in their ‘charges’, but in doing so, they actually, in my view, perpetuate widespread mistrust, because while people may follow the rules, they know that polite conduct is no deeper than a veneer; therefore, it only reduces fear as far as our trust in the capacity of law enforcers to protect us allows. And in acting accordingly, we largely abdicate our inherent, human responsibility to care for one another—Aristotle’s definition of kindness—as we did throughout the majority of our species’ history.
It is a twisted deal — the trade of trust in one another for trust in strongmen to compensate for its loss.
In some cities, ‘real life’ happens indoors, away from the public eye. Once safely ensconced at home or among friends and family, their denizens drop all pretenses. In those places, unvarnished opinions come out, at the same time as untold wealth is poured into them, while outside the infrastructure (physical, social and cultural) falls apart, suffering deeply from a lack of investment. To live that way is to live within systems that ignore their obligation to invest in the things that bind us, emotionally.
Cities like these are, to be explicit, dead places.
Laws and codes of conduct may be tolerated, but they are decidedly at odds with who we are, as social creatures. And so a city or nation either acknowledges and accommodates a wide and sometimes conflicting array of expressed behaviors in an act of municipal or federal trust, appealing instead to our common kindnesses with social investments (in education, access to services, open discourse, the creation—and support—of social and cultural institutions, and the removal of regulations, replaced as they should be, with trust, and outspoken honesty), or it restricts a people to the point of driving their authentic selves underground, where it’s more difficult to get a sense of what’s really going on, and where the true victim is the social fabric that bonds societies to one another in common purpose, tolerance, and support.
When I visited Freetown Christiania, in Copenhagen, in 1991, twenty years after its founding, I saw a self-policed commune set in abandoned military barracks where marijuana — an illicit drug — was bought and sold — and smoked — freely on the streets (which may have had something to do with why I visited). I remember asking Danes why it was that the police didn’t crack down on it. I was invariably told, “Because that way, they know where it is. If they squashed it, it would disappear into a hundred other places, where it would be untraceable, and the drug problem would likely be far worse.”
Theirs was a fascinating lesson in tolerance, and reasonableness, even if it flew in the face of official regulation.
So if denizens of courtesy-centric cities wait for private release to let their true selves show, out of view, New Yorkers live for public life, in line with Acocella’s appraisal. To live in either environment is to see a stark contrast in the demeanor and behaviors of both residents and their nanny-state regulator-enforcers. It’s visible in the ways with which people express themselves freely (or don’t), and in the richness (or paucity) of the cities’ public realm, and institutions.
Cities are a clear and inescapable reflection of the politeness or kindness of its people. This is visible in the degree to which regulation and restriction is encoded in behaviors and language, in the density and diversity of their social and cultural institutions, and in the level of tolerance (or intolerance) with which their denizens allow others room to act, without judgment or accusation. Which side of that coin a city lands on determines, in large part, which qualities its residents will develop (or not), and share (or not). Either it will thrive, or it will wither. Either people will find invisible outlets for their true nature—and miss out on opportunities to develop cultural depth, or they will find it “on the street”, amid a rich offering of places to practice being together. Sometimes, the pressure to conform is so great that verbal or physical violence happens. Regulation, intolerance and censorship are like corks in a champagne bottle, held in place firmly while the pressure builds from within. When I am in regulation-rich, intolerant cities, anything can—and regularly does!—trigger road rage and judgment, and more things offend more people, more often and more deeply, than when I am in cities full of tolerance for difference, in which judgment has no room to thrive, largely because people are busy feeding their ambitions, as Setterfield noted, instead of minding other people’s business. On the subject of policing, it’s worth mentioning that while New York boasts the world’s largest municipal police force (I designed their training academy, which gave me several windows into their nature), it is, with obvious exceptions, one that operates largely through the lens of “public safety”, not “law enforcement”. These are very, very different things. One is for the people, while the other is against them. Or, said another way, one of these trusts people to generally do the right thing, with a greater degree of tolerance when they step outside the lines, while the other mistrusts people, and therefore gives them no quarter for breaching the official code of conduct. This, among other things, leads the people within either environment to either hide, or reveal, their true nature on their metaphorical streets. Those who do act openly in public revel in the freedom they feel to be themselves, free of judgment, and equally free to find others in kind, on every street corner, in every bar, at every gallery or show, throughout all of its glorious, and tolerated, difference.
To be a New Yorker, first and foremost, is to find your inner kindness, and to have it accepted in the public realm that all New Yorkers cherish and cultivate, outside of their micro-domiciles. And for more than any other reason, they do this because “I do indeed know you and our common problems; and yes, we have the same handbag.”
Or at least, if I did carry one, I know that, too would be accepted in the City that Never Sleeps, with true kindness.