In a touching Medium post a few days ago, the writer and programmer Paul Ford shared what he thinks is the secret to his politeness. In conversations with new acquaintances, Ford asks plenty of questions and lets the other person do the talking. He tries not to ask what they do for a living, but if it comes to that, he responds to their job description—whatever it is—with, “Wow. That sounds hard.”
“Nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult,” he writes. He describes how this process once worked with a woman whose work is not something most people would consider taxing:
I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson.
What Ford describes is known, in research circles, as empathy. It sounds simple, but it’s actually counterintuitive: If we humans are locked in a nasty, brutish, and short struggle for resources, why would we stop to give a hoot about each other?
But we do. Empathy is considered by many psychologists to be essential to cooperation, problem-solving, and to human functioning in general. Researchers have described it as “social glue, binding people together and creating harmonious relationships.” Empathetic people are more likely to forgive others for small errors, like running late. Asking narcissists to imagine themselves in others’ shoes can help shrink their big heads.
Empathy helps people behave more generously, but some are worried that our society, with its Personal Brands and Snapchats, is losing this crucial characteristic. Recent research has suggested that college students have become less empathetic since the 1970s, so much so that scientists are saying they should read great works of literature in order to better see situations from different points-of-view. Get out of the dorm and into the Gulag Archipelago, kids!
There are multiple ideas of what it means to be polite. The oldest, coined by the British philosopher Lord Shaftesbury in the early 1700s, holds that “‘politeness’ may be defined a dext’rous management of our words and actions, whereby we make other people have better opinion of us and themselves.” That is, we behave politely so as to boost our own social standing among our peers.
But I prefer the definition offered by Brendan Fraser’s Cold-War-era Prepper character in the 1999 feature film Blast from the Past: “Manners are a way of showing other people we care about them.”
Signaling that you understand how hard someone else’s situation is certainly makes you better at cocktail parties. But empathy—or “politeness,” or “manners”—isn’t just there at the start of interpersonal relationships; it also holds them together.