Becoming More Polite

Co-authored by Tasha Rube, LMSW 

Politeness is an important social skill that can help you make friends, succeed professionally, and show respect. You may have good manners already but are looking to expand them for an upcoming dinner party, work event, or just for life in general. You can be polite by offering a proper greeting and showing good manners with words and actions.

Greeting People Politely

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    Smile when greeting someone. When first meeting or greeting someone, offer them up a warm smile. Smiling indicates that you are in good spirits and are happy to see them. It helps to establish friendliness from the get-go as the smile is the first impression that people usually make when meeting someone.  In some cultures, such as Russia, smiling is not necessary.
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    Say hello. Instead of just walking by someone you know or ignoring someone you are supposed to be meeting, greet them with a warm ‘hello.’ You do not need to wait for them to say it to you first; it’s okay to be the initiator.

    • For example, “Hello, Mr. Sanderson. It’s great to meet you! My name is Emma Payne and I work in cybersecurity.”
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    Shake hands firmly and assertively. When meeting someone, take their hand into your right hand and grasp it firmly, shaking it up and down once. Respect the other person by not squeezing their hand too hard in an attempt to “dominate” them. If you know them well, you might hug instead.

    • There are many different ways people around the world greet each other, and these greetings may not always involve handshaking. Be sure you’re aware what’s appropriate in the country you’re living in. You can go online to find out if you’re unsure.
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    Make eye contact if it is culturally appropriate. When in conversation with someone, look them in the eyes a little over half the time you’re speaking. Maintaining eye contact shows that you are paying attention. Staring at them, however, can be perceived as creepy and rude. Break eye contact every so often to avoid staring.

    • Eye contact is usually seen as a sign of respect in Western culture. In some Eastern cultures, it can be seen as a sign of aggression. Don’t make eye contact if the other person considers it rude.
    • People with certain conditions such as autism and social anxiety may find eye contact unnerving or distracting. If eye contact is hard for you, you can fake it by looking at someone’s nose or chin. (They usually can’t tell the difference.) If your conversation partner avoids eye contact, keep in mind that they may be shy or they may have a disability, and let it go.


Being Polite with Words

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    Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ When asking someone to do something for you, always say ‘please.’ After someone has done something for you, always say ‘thank you.’ Let others know that you appreciate and value their contributions.

    • You might say “Honey, can you pick my dry cleaning up today, please?”
    • Or you can say “Thank you for getting that memo to me about the job assignment so quickly.”
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    Make small talk. Instead of jumping right into business or serious discussion with someone, make small talk first. Discuss their day, their kids, or the awesome Thai food they have for lunch. Talk about the movies or shows you’re watching lately or books that you’re reading. This will help break the ice.

    • Say something like “Hi Ms. Richardson! How’s your day going so far?” When she responds, you can say something like “Oh you just had your lunch break? What did you have?”
    • Try to remember details about the person you’re speaking with, such as their partner or children’s names, their birthday, or their anniversary. Be mindful of other issues and difficult life events.
    • Listen attentively and pay attention to what they are saying to you. Do not interrupt them when they are speaking, but show them you’re interested by asking questions.
    • Avoid jargon and any vocabulary that others may not know. If you’re discussing a complex topic, be careful not to speak arrogantly.
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    Address elders with respect. In many communities, addressing elders by their first name can be seen as disrespectful. Instead, use “Mr.” and “Ms.” if you don’t know their professional title or marital status.

    • If they ask you to call them by their first name, you should do so.
    • Use these terms for anyone 15 years or more older than you.
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    Congratulate other people on their successes. When others do well, offer them your praise. If you see someone you know in the grocery store who has recently graduated, gotten married, or gotten a promotion, congratulate them. Failing to do so can be perceived as rude.

    • Acknowledge sad times, as well. If you know someone in their family has recently died, express your condolences.
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    Avoid swear words in polite company. Some people use curse words at home or with friends. If you are in a church, school, professional setting, or around people you don’t know well, keep your language tame.
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    Avoid gossiping. Though it can be tempting to talk about people you know, avoid doing so. A polite person does not spread demeaning information about others, whether it’s true or not. If others are gossiping around you, change the subject or walk away.
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    Recognize inappropriate topics. Some conversation topics can make people upset or uncomfortable, and you can risk hurting other people’s feelings if you accidentally make an insensitive comment. While they are sometimes okay to discuss with close friends, they’re often inappropriate in polite conversation or when getting to know someone. Try to steer your the conversation towards pleasant or at least decent areas, and avoid causing friction in a polite setting.

    • Sex, violence, death, medical details, and politics usually make people uncomfortable. Avoid these topics in polite conversation, especially if you don’t know your conversation partner very well.
    • Don’t point out things about a person that they might perceive as a flaw. For example, if someone is overweight, don’t mention it. Avoid commenting on people’s body size, body parts, habits, disabilities, or other potentially sensitive topics.
    • Avoid intrusive questions towards someone who is different from you. For example, it’s not appropriate to ask a wheelchair user “What happened to your legs?” or to ask a person of color “No, where are you REALLY from?”
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    Avoid pressuring other people. Never push anyone to do anything that they’ve expressed discomfort with, from romantic pursuits to ordinary activities. If their body language involves signs of discomfort, slow down or stop. If they express a boundary, respect it immediately.

    • If you think someone might be feeling pressured, say “There’s no pressure” or “Please feel free not to take my advice if it doesn’t suit you.”
    • If you think you might have crossed a boundary, you can say “I’m sorry. Have I made you uncomfortable?” or “Would you like me to stop?”
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    Apologize when you do wrong. Everyone makes social mistakes from time to time, no matter how hard they may try. When you do mess up, apologize genuinely and immediately. Express that you’re sorry and make plans to avoid the behavior in the future.

    • For instance, perhaps you flaked on your friend this weekend on a party you two had planned to go to for weeks. Say “I’m so sorry about this Friday. I got really tired after work and just wanted to sleep. That doesn’t make it okay though, so I apologize. Let’s go out this weekend.”


    Being Polite with Actions

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      Be early. Be respectful of other’s time. If you have a meeting or appointment with someone, try to arrive at least five minutes early as being late in some cultures is considered very offensive. You never know what kind of traffic you’ll run into, so leave early to be prepared.
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      Dress appropriately for the occasion. When invited to events, check the invite to see the dress code. If you don’t know what the dress code means, use your favorite search engine to look up what term your host used and find examples of suitable outfits.

      • For instance, if an event is business casual, then you should wear a nice shirt and slacks or a skirt. You can wear a blazer or cardigan as well.
      • Make sure your clothes are ironed and clean.
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      Maintain your hygiene. In addition to your clothing, be sure to keep up your hygiene. Shower daily and wear deodorant and lotion. Keep your hair clean, neat, and out of your face.
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      Know proper dinner party manners. For silverware, go from the outside, in. Place your napkin on your lap, and do not add anything to the table that was not there when you got there (cell phone, glasses, jewelry). Put your purse between your feet and under your chair. You should not apply makeup at the table, so if you want to fix your makeup or check if something is in your teeth, go to the restroom.

      • Don’t begin eating until everyone else is served.
      • Chew with your mouth closed and don’t talk if your mouth is full.
      • Avoid foods with foul odors that will linger on your breath.
      • Don’t slurp your food.
      • Don’t put your elbows on the table and don’t reach over people for another helping. Ask if they can pass it to you.
      • Don’t play excessively with your hair.
      • Avoid habits that other people might see as disgusting. Don’t chew your fingernails or fingers. Avoid picking at your ears or nose. Instead, excuse yourself if you need to blow your nose or use the restroom to clean up.
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      Observe others when in doubt. How are they greeting and addressing each other? What are they doing with their coats? What kinds of topics are they discussing? Different settings require different standards of formality, and those standards often define what is polite and what is not. So when you don’t know, look to the host or other guests for guidance.

This article was co-authored by Tasha Rube, LMSW

Author: Dennis Hickey

There are no limits to success to those who never stop learning. Learning will nourish your personal growth. I hope you enjoy this website and visit often so you too keep learning and growing.

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