The reason for using tact and diplomacy in communications – being polite so as not to offend – is to avoid adverse social consequences. But what do you do when being polite means being untrue to your own values and beliefs. How do you express your point of view, even if unpopular?; how do you balance politeness and honesty?

Politeness is the social expectation of correct behavior. The extreme of social expectation is ‘political correctness’. Failure to comply with the prevailing ‘norms of belief’ can attract swift condemnation and even expulsion – just ask Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt, Politics Professor Tom Flanagan, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers. Free speech has been sacrificed at the alter of political correctness. (But I digress – more on this in a later blog, perhaps.) Aside from being politically incorrect, being impolite or rude could lead to conflict, awkwardness or embarrassment, and hurt feelings – feelings that many people try to avoid when possible.

In many interpersonal encounters, the first few minutes can have a significant impact on the success of further communication. Accordingly, socially correct behaviour – being polite – is the bridge to more involved communication. When expectations of socially correct behavior is mismatched, communication will not be effective or run smoothly, and some form of repair will be needed if relations are to continue.

At the beginning of an encounter, especially with those you are meeting for the first time, formalities and appropriate greetings are usually expected: such formalities could include a handshake, an introduction to yourself, eye contact; discussion around a neutral subject such as the weather or your journey may be useful. This is the advice every candidate is reminded of in preparing for the job interview – and yet many find so hard to do. A friendly disposition and smiling face are much more likely to encourage interest than a blank face, inattention or apparent disinterest. Clever repartee on the other hand may be risky.

According to one philosopher, politeness in itself is not a virtue; it is however pre-requisite to the great virtues. To practice politeness is a civilizing behavior – it requires that a person engage another in a manner that is expected, respectful and accepting. Politeness is learned: it is the behaviour expected of humans that is considered (culturally specific) correct: proper conduct in society. It is discipline.

Being polite does not however preclude being dishonest, deceitful or dodgy. Politeness may even mask duplicity. You have almost certainly found yourself in this situation at various points in your life and the chances are this happens more often than you would like to admit. Especially now that I have pointed it out.

(You don’t think so? How bout this: You consider your boss a perfect a**hole but you smile at her and say, “Good morning, Joanne!”)

But the point of communications goes beyond initial greeting and social niceties – it is to gain understanding and agreement on some relevant topic while at the same time consolidating the relationship. You need to get your point across – and this may require a dollop of courage, assertiveness and directness – but how do you achieve your goal without harming the relationship, especially when the other party does not want to hear the message? How do you avoid feeling that you are compromising your own values and ethics – integrity – for the sake of the relationship? In the modern vernacular, how do you speak truth to power? How do you balance honesty with politeness? More on this in the next installment.

If you are interested in exploring these ideas further AFS Consulting has a program for you delivered in one-on-one coaching modality: Mastering the Art of Tact and Diplomacy. Check it out here: