While there is certainly plenty of research about politeness – and even a whole international conference devoted to the study of it – one may be hard-pressed to find genuine and sustained acts of politeness in higher education. The pursuit of truth and creativity may lead many academics to eschew the practice of politeness, but scholars would do well to understand the power of strategic and persistent politeness. Paul Ford recently wrote a brilliant essay on politeness that examines some of the ways in which the sustained practice of politeness can yield positive results, both professionally and personally. Not only is the essay charming and full of good humor, as one would expect, it also contains some very valuable reflections on the power of politeness, such as:
"Politeness buys you time. It leaves doors open."
"The good thing about politeness is that you can treat these people exactly the same. And then wait to see what happens. You don’t have to have an opinion. You don't have to make a judgment."
Politeness may be about manners and morals for some, but it can also be used to a strategic advantage, particularly in professional settings. Being polite can put people at ease, soften criticism and complaint, and show deference - and all of these things come in handy in academia when dealing with institutional red tape, less-than-helpful faculty, or vexatious colleagues.
In an article for the Chronicle, Jason B. Jones also argues for the importance of having a "flexible memory" when practicing sustained politeness in academic settings. While this doesn't mean ignoring bullies or harassers when they pose a threat to one's person or career, it does mean "giv[ing] people some space for self-reinvention." Instead of using every little difference as an opportunity to tally up someone else's deficiencies or to bring up past grievances, it is generally more productive to give people the benefit of the doubt. This can often result in renewed understanding, empathy, and even "a sense of overwhelming love and empathy," as Ford suggests.
However, Jones is quick to point out that an endorsement of politeness is not (intended to be) a type of social control, such as tone policing. While some of Ford's experiences with and advocacy for politeness may come from a position of relative privilege, politeness should not be used as a means of squashing dissent. As one blogger points out, "Marginalized people often do not have the luxury of emotionally distancing themselves from discussions on their rights and experiences." However, the precepts of politeness may be used to strategically create common ground and promote common decency.
When politeness is used to encourage civility and equality – particularly among individuals whose access to social and institutional power might otherwise put them at odds with each other – then it can truly have transformative potential.