The Competing Claims of Politeness and Authenticity

Politeness is a large part of the social fabric of most societies. While the forms that politeness takes are different in differing societal contexts typically communities adopt some forms of etiquette to ease social interaction. I would like to address politeness within the context of post-industrial English speaking countries. Within this context certain aspects of politeness seem to be at odds with a popular interpretation of authenticity. This popular interpretation of authenticity, let us call it “popular authenticity” posits that the authentic person has the integrity to be honest about who he or she is and what he or she thinks. However, the nature of the conflict between the good of politeness and the good of popular authenticity is not one of opposing values with equivalent spheres of application; rather these goods are most compelling in a distinct set of spheres within a community. Yet it should be noted that one sphere in which these goods have similar claims and consequently virulently oppose each other is the political sphere.

Investigating an example will help us better understand why certain elements of politeness are at odds with popular authenticity. For example, if I am at work and am invited out for drinks, or to go to supper with my colleagues it is impolite to say “No, I don’t want to go because I don’t particularly like you.” This statement may be true, but it is certainly impolite. The polite response would either be to say “no, thanks” without further elaboration, or to come up with a tactful excuse for why you cannot attend if you are prodded as to why you cannot attend. Thus, it seems politeness requires us to refrain from saying things that may be true and that we may want to say. Consequently, politeness seems to be at odds with popular authenticity, as according to this notion, the authentic person will not hide what he or she thinks, but politeness seems to require us to hide what we think.

While the preceding may causes us alarm, the conflict between popular authenticity and politeness does not require us to either support politeness exclusively or popular authenticity exclusively. While there is conflict between popular authenticity and politeness this conflict need not raise its head all the time as theses goods are most compelling within different spheres of the community. The value of politeness within post-industrial English speaking countries is a good that operates most dominantly within the sphere of the broader society and economy, as opposed to the narrower spheres of the family, romantic relationships and friendship. Within the spheres of economy and society we must deal with people we do not know, may not like and may not trust, and politeness helps all of us to operate within that social world by minimizing conflict. When dealing with others who we know little about politeness seems prudent as it allows us to get along and avoids unnecessary conflict. Here, it should be noted that I am making use of certain elements of Kingwell’s analysis of politeness or “civility” as a political virtue which he outlines within “A Civil Tongue,” although my point is different, as I am speaking about non-political social interaction. On the other hand, popular authenticity seems most compelling within the sphere of deep private relationships. In the context of these deep private relationships there is no need to use politeness to minimize conflict as affection and open communication can play this role. Furthermore, popular authenticity is most compelling within this narrower sphere of deep private relationships as these relationships are marked by a degree of intimacy that requires us to disclose ourselves authentically to one another. It may seem impolite to do something that offends a friend, but part of friendship is disclosing oneself to the other even if this initially causes offense. It is a sign that a friendship is not fully developed that the friends hide things from one another in order to ease social interaction. Therefore, it seems that politeness and popular authenticity are most compelling within different spheres of the community.

It should be noted that while I have said that politeness is most compelling within the economy and broader society, and popular authenticity is most compelling within deep private relationships, these goods are still operative in other spheres; it is just that the claims of popular authenticity are more compelling in the sphere of deep, private relationships than economy or society, and likewise the claims of politeness are stronger in the economy and society than in the sphere of deep, private relationships.

The one sphere that I did not discuss was the political sphere, and it seems to me that this is a sphere in which politeness and popular authenticity have similar claims. In politics citizens need to be encouraged to voice their thoughts and frustrations authentically so that the discussions that occur actually consider the genuine concerns of the citizenry, and so that citizens feel secure in disclosing their opinions. On the other hand there may be times where the authentic disclosure of political opinions will cause conflict that will make a workable compromise impossible, and thus there may be a pragmatic need for politeness within the political sphere in order to come up with solutions that serve the public good. In this sphere we simply have to accept that the conflict between politeness and popular authenticity runs deep and that it is something that we must live with.

The points elaborated above are not likely to help us better resolve the conflicts between politeness and popular authenticity that occur, but they do help us better understand the claims popular authenticity and politeness make on us. This will prevent us from seeing these goods as placing unconditional commands upon us, and rather see that each one of these goods is but one among many, within its own peculiar character and claims.

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