Why We Should Stop Being Polite

Stop. Take a Breath. Hold on to the Beauty

By Angela Noel

March 16, 2017

I was in college when the first Real World by MTV crashed into our living rooms.  What happens “. . . when people stop being polite and start getting real?” the show asked.

Interesting question . . . only I don’t think they ever answered it. In thirty-two (and counting) seasons, have we seen a whole lot of “real?”

Drama. Yes. But, real?

What’s Wrong With Being Polite?

My mother (and probably yours, too) would argue, nothing whatsoever is wrong with being polite. Being polite isn’t hard. It’s often the first thing we teach our children: say please and thank you, don’t fart in public, hold doors open for people. Clearly, if there are only two choices between being rude or being polite, go with the latter.

But, what if being polite gets in the way of empathy, compassion, and joy? What if politeness is the costume we wear when we either don’t know–or don’t know how to trust–our true selves? Politeness might have kept me from a profound moment of human connection.

But Luckily, Elizabeth Gilbert Intervened.
What are you excited about?
Elizabeth Gilbert asks the question, “What are you excited about?”

Gilbert is the author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and the host of a podcast called Magic Lessons where she endeavors to unleash the creative potential in all of us. One of the core tenets of her philosophy is the necessity of remaining mentally awake to inspiration and beauty all around us. But, since she’s also a human being, she struggles with the energy needed to be “on” all the time.

All of us find ourselves switching to auto-pilot on a daily basis, and Liz (I’ve decided we’re on a first name basis) is no exception. During her book tour, she became aware of her auto-pilot setting and gave herself a challenge. She opted out of just being polite, deciding real was better. She ditched the standard “get to know you” questions and asked this instead:

“What are You Most Excited About?”

I asked my cab driver this question after ten minutes in his taxi on the way to the airport. I’d already asked him a few questions about how long he’d been driving a cab and why he liked it. But, I wasn’t satisfied. Small talk isn’t real. I decided to try Liz’s question.

“So, what are you most excited about?” I asked as we drove along the 405 freeway in Irvine, California. The driver didn’t hesitate. “You know, I’m a man that believes in the afterlife,” he said. “And I’ve had enough tragedy in my life to know that our lives are like a breath of air on a cold morning–there and then not, you know?”

I did.

“My sister got cancer, my wife got cancer, my brother committed suicide. . . . and I just know that I’ve got my calling on earth and then my home with Him in heaven. And,” he continued, “I’ve become aware, pretty recently, that things, these vices of being a human . . . like gambling for instance, they aren’t worth it.”

“Sounds like you have some experience with that.” My heart raced. Had I gone too far? But he’d offered an invitation, a hand outstetched, and I didn’t want to be afraid to accept. I wasn’t sure if he’d talk more about his faith or gambling, or neither.

“Yeah. I do. I’ve been a gambler for years. Not the worst kind, but bad enough. But I decided that’s enough of that. I decided to give back. Tonight’s the second board of directors’ meeting for a non-profit I started.”

“Wow!” I said, “That’s awesome. What is it? What does it do?”

A potter at work. Magic
A potter at work, shaping clay. Taking what was, and building something new.

“It’s called Potter’s Work, and we want to help the homeless. You know, right over there,” he points to the overpass, “seven hundred people live. And they need help. They need a leg up, not people that come and bulldoze their bikes and throw out their sleeping bags. So, I’m doing something because I think I can help.”

At this Point, I have to Take a Deep Breath.

Whenever my eyes catch something beautiful, a color-saturated sunset, or a field filled with white flowers around a bend in the road, I take a deep breath; as if by filling my lungs at that moment, I can somehow hold on to

Stop. Breath. Take in the moment.
Beauty isn’t always found in what we see with our eyes.

the beauty longer. Though all I saw around me at that moment were SUVs and concrete, the driver’s story made me take that same deep breath.

“Do you have a website?” I asked him. “I’d love to check it out.”

“Sure!” he reached towards his bag, finds the card and passes it back to me.

I hold it like a gift.

Seconds later, he’s opening my door and helping me out of the cab with my luggage.

“Thanks so much for the ride,” I said. “What’s your name?” I reach out my hand to him. “I’m Angela.”

“Steve,” he replied. “You’ve got my card now. Do you come this way often? Just give me a call.”

We’re both smiling. His hand was warm and soft. “I sure will, Steve. Wonderful to meet you.”

“You, too.”

Soon, I’ve disappeared behind the glass sliding doors, and Steve’s cab pulled away from the curb. What happens when strangers stop being polite, and start getting real?


Your turn: Have you had a magic moment with a stranger? How did it feel?

Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

54 thoughts on “Why We Should Stop Being Polite”

  1. Thank you Ma’am, for sharing this excellent post with us 😉 Hope your week is filled with countless “Steve encounters.”

  2. What a cool experience. I love Liz (also on a first name basis but she’s not aware of that)! I recommend a TED talk called “how to skip the small talk” https://youtu.be/WDbxqM4Oy1Y

    Thanks for the great post!

    1. Thank you so much for sharing the link! Kalina’s movement to make “Big Talk” sounds exactly like what this post, and the mission of people like Liz (and me and you) want. I love how ideas spontaneously and simultaneously grows from many seemingly unrelated sources. We need every voice to make a difference. I’m delighted you stopped by and shared your thought with me today!

  3. Beautiful! Most people want to tell their story. There is nothing impolite about asking, politely. And in doing so, we share our humanness. Thanks.

  4. I love this Angela, what a great story and real magic! I’ll try it in future, I’m always being told I cut to the chase pretty quickly giving polite small talk a miss. I love the meaty real stuff of conversations.

    1. Me too! My guess is, when you have those real conversations, most of the time whomever you’re talking with feels good that you weren’t afraid to get to know them! Once I realized I didn’t mind extending my hand first-even if it sometimes got slapped-my relationships have deepened. But I don’t always “go there” in situations like the cab ride, but now I know I can. I’m glad you’re going to try it, too! Thank you so much for reading, and sharing your thoughts!

  5. Wow! What a beautiful experience. So much of what you shared really made me smile. And I love how you circled back to your beginning at the end. Magic: I feel like we get so caught up in the day-to-day that we forget to stop and take it in. Thanks for reminding me. 🙂

  6. This is truly wonderful Angela. I might start doing this too (ask people what they’re most excited about). I’m not afraid to say this is the second blog I’ve read this morning that has made me tear up. Looks like you came across an incredibly interesting man that has lived a life. I also love how this post makes you think about how people are never how they seem on surface. Great work xx

  7. Awwww…we really should go past the small tall sometimes and have deep conversations…I enjoyed reading this

    1. Thank you for your thought, and for reading! I had a boss once who had a saying that’s stuck with with all these years. “It’s so easy, it’s hard,” she’d say about simple things like smiling and being grateful. I think getting beyond the small talk is a little like that, too.

  8. Got me right in the feels, in the best possible way. Thanks for such an uplifting post, Angela!

  9. Just, wow Angela. I have to admit when I first read the title I was a bit skeptical and unsure of where you were going but this was beautiful. What happens when we stop being polite indeed. So inspirational. Thank you.

  10. Not where I expected this to go, but I’m much happier than I would have been if you’d taken it in my (cynical) direction.

    Also, I love this question, and it’s absolutely going to become my new stand-in for the much-hated “what do you do (for a living)?”

    1. Thank you for reading! The title is a little misleading- I debated on that one. But, I’m glad you stuck around for what sounds like a good surprise! It’s not easy to go off script with strangers, but I think it’s worth it. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes for you!

  11. I love this! I’ve been challenging myself to have similar encounters for some time now, and while it gets easier with practice, I still find it challenging. However, this past February I hopped on a hotel shuttle at MSP and recognized the driver from my ride returning from the same trip 12 months earlier, when I felt like we connected on our 10 minute journey together. I was returning from Mexico, and I recall telling her about how beach volleyball was one of my favorite activities while on vacation, and I learned all about how her son plays professionally, where he lives, and how he was hoping to make it into the Olympics in the future. You see, it was easy for me to recognize her, I knew the shuttle I was boarding, and the hotel where my car was parked. But she would have no reason to recognize me among the thousands and thousands of passengers she must have picked up over the prior year. As the group of 6 strangers and I boarded that van and she began driving away, she casually asked “so, where’s everybody coming in from”. As the people around me rattled off their cities of origin, I said “Zihuatanejo”. She looked in the rearview mirror and said “are you my beach volleyball player from Ixtapa?” She not only remembered me, she remembered our brief conversation from a year earlier! I was ecstatic! I instantly confirmed and then asked about her son and whether he made it to Rio this past summer (he hadn’t, but has high hopes for 2018) and we just began chattering like old friends, much to the surprise and confusion of the other passengers. Nearly two months have passed since this random encounter and the memory of it still warms me to this day. I can’t wait for next year, to see if we’ll meet again! I highly doubt any of this would have happened if we had simply talked about the weather the first time we met. Great article Angela.

    1. I absolutely LOVE this story. What a memorable moment created by two awesome people. Sometimes I make the mistake of believing the only deep, meaningful relationships I have are with long-term friends. But, who’s to say a deep relationship has to be long-term? Seems to me there’s far more than one definition of “meaningful.” Your story proved it. Thank you so much for sharing!

  12. Everyone has a story if we approach them the right way. Thank you for smudging my mascara today on #ThrowbackThursday.

  13. This is such a sweet encounter Angela! 😀

    I think politeness can depend on language too. I always found in Japanese that I could use politeness to be more professional, but also more distant. I always know when I am really getting to know someone in Japan, when we finally move into the less formal type of speech. I think we do the same thing in English, it is just less codified.

    1. Hi Josy. That’s an excellent point. I’d like to learn more about that. How do you know when it’s okay to shift toward the less formal? Is it just a feeling or is there a rule of some kind of who initiates the less formal language?

      1. It’s actually pretty complicated. I used to live in the West of Japan (Osaka and Nara) and people there are more likely to drop formalities and be friendly than in Tokyo. There are many different levels of formality, but basically the longer it takes to say something, the more polite it is! It’s sort of the same in English. Saying “Juice please” is far less polite than saying “could you possibly pass me some juice.”

        At work, you should mostly stick to formal language. With friends you mostly go non-formal (unless you are pissed off, or joking/using formality to make a point.) People that are higher up in a company can use informal language to people below them BUT newbies or younger workers still need to speak formally in reply. So if a CEO is chatting to a temp worker, they would both be using different language to say the same thing. BUT the CEO can choose to speak formally, to show respect to the temp if they want. Also women tend to me more polite in their choice of language than men.

        People are just really good at switching, but it can be hard for non-native speakers! Having said that, in some ways it is easier for non-native speakers to drop barriers and make friends because we don’t quite fit into Japanese society, so it’s easier for us to chat informally with people of all ages.

        I hope that makes sense!?

        1. It is complicated! Thank you for explaining it so well. In some ways the unwritten rules are like a code–or a language in and of itself. What a fascinating, and no doubt, eye-opening journey you must have had!

  14. I love having real interactions with locals. We have had elderly French women chatting happily away with us nodding obviously in the right moments. She left happy and so did we though we didn’t understand half of what she said she obviously just wanted to chat 🙂

    1. That’s so sweet! Just the gift of attention, whether or not we fully understand, is enough sometimes. I can totally picture you and that lady having a pleasant, though unintelligible, chat. 🙂

  15. I think that’s the reality that we face every day is being polite or being real (and potentially rude). And how do we choose? I think in a matter of being real you can meet and learn new people/things.

    1. I agree! I sometimes worry that my curiosity misleads me into thinking everyone is comfortable chatting with me. I try to tread a bit lightly until I can feel someone opening up, but no doubt once in a while people must think I’m a nut. I think, on balance, being real is the very best way. Thank you for reading and adding your thought!

  16. This is so true! As an introvert, I have a really hard time with surface conversation and conversation with strangers in general. I’m going to try to go deeper next time though!

    1. I’m so glad! It’s never really “easy” to put ourselves out there, but it is definitely worth the effort. Thank you so much for reading and even more for taking the message to heart. 🙂

  17. Beautiful story and the perfect reminder that we all have a passion and just being polite will never allow us to learn about the amazing passions (or the struggles) of those around us. Thank you for sharing.

  18. I’ve had MANY conversations where the topic of “being real” has come into play. It seems to me that “we” are so afraid of letting people get too close that anything beyond small talk is a no-no.

    I’m a wedding DJ. For the bulk of the time that I’ve worn that hat, I’ve done sub-contract work: generally, my only contact with the client(s) before showing up on-site on their wedding day is a phone call the Monday or Tuesday before.

    My favorite client calls are ALWAYS those where the formalities melt away. When we can get past the details of the actual event and get to know each other on a more personal level (or, at the very least, they get more of a glimpse of yours truly). It’s imperative to me for them to trust that I’m the guy for the job, especially since they’re getting the luck of the draw as far as their entertainer is concerned.

    In those instances, I prefer to be real versus polite (not that they are mutually exclusive). Real always instills more trust.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. Steven, I bet your clients who open up also get a better experience–not because you tried less hard for the other ones, but because now you’re creating something together with the couple, rather than being a “vendor”. Interaction vs. transaction.
      I also think you’re absolutely right, fear of being vulnerable has kept me from getting close to others, and it’s my loss every time. Having the courage to listen and to share makes a huge difference in our human experience. Thank you for stopping by and sharing your experiences. I love how you express your commitment to your work and clients. Wonderful!

  19. I love Elizabeth Gilbert and her book as well. I got chills reading this. Just one simple question and walls start to fall down, perceptions start to change. Now you can’t go back to that time before you asked, “What excites you?”

    1. Exactly. I definitely feel like things changed when I started to ask “bigger” questions. And, I think by digging into what people are interested in rather than the more obvious categorizations (like what do you do for a living) we find more of the human stuff within. Thank you so much for reading!

  20. Angela, this post is a Godsend and I will tell you why. Do you know what book I am reading right now? BIG MAGIC! It’s amazing how much I am able to relate to this post because of the lessons in the book.

    And what a beautiful story of hope, second chances and faith. That cab driver is blessed and so are you. We must ask the bigger questions. We absolutely must. No more limitations 🙂

    1. What a lovely comment! Thank you so much. I think Elizabeth Gilbert’s greatest strength is her willingness to just be herself. I honestly believe that’s the hardest job for all of us. I’d love to know what you think when you’ve read the whole book. She also does a podcast that I like by the same name. Worth a listen. 🙂

  21. Lovely read. It’s nice when a stranger is open and doesn’t become defensive about questions. It sounds like an enjoyable cab ride.

  22. What a lovely heartwarming story Angela. I might just ask that question to the next stranger I meet.

  23. I love reading posts of yours that I haven’t had the pleasure of reading yet. And, I think this is one of my favorites. I got chills at the end of your story – it was a breath of fresh air. I also grew up learning how to be polite. And there’s more – in a way I grew up learning to mind-my-own-business. Almost as if asking personal questions like “What are you most excited about?” would be stepping into another person’s bubble. Now, as an adult, I hate small talk. I’m not good at small talk. I appreciate deep conversations – conversations that open my world to new thoughts and ideas. Conversations that invite other people into my world – or theirs. It’s a step toward openness, empathy, and friendship. You portray all of this in your post. Beautiful, Angela!

    1. Small talk really is the worst. And though it’s necessary some times, I sure want to get to the good stuff. I love how you put that, “Conversations that invite other people into my world-or theirs.” That’s exactly what we can and should be doing more often. It’s not always easy, but I do think it’s rewarding almost all of the time. Thank you for reading and for your awesome comment.

  24. Pingback: Three Different Stories, One Common Thread – Youth Empowerment Initiative

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