being nice is powerful

The Power of Please

There was a singularly interesting moment this weekend, when I was teaching a small community theater group in Salt Lake City. In and amongst the stage-combat and movement classes I had been asked to give a short lecture on the history of a particular genre, and I was looking forward to it. When you teach a lot of hands-on classes, the opportunity to give a good old-fashioned talk is quite a treat. Besides, this hearkened back to my Mormon upbringing, giving talks on Sunday or (more often) watching my father’s masterful presentation style. I owe more than a little of my success today to his example.

About twenty minutes before the talk – which was being given in the living room of one of the community members – people were just hanging out, some seated, some leaning against the wall. Some were in the kitchen finishing off the remains of the lunch we’d just had.

About ten minutes before the talk, the leader of the group came thru and simply announced “Class, ten minutes until the talk.” It was like a galvanic reaction. Suddenly the students were standing – all of them – straight, good posture, hands out of pockets. They were actively engaging each other in polite conversation. There was no leaning, no more “loud” laughter, though there were plenty of smiles and twinkling eyes.

What happened?

The Refinement of Ladies and Gentlemen

What had happened was that their attendance at my lecture was part of a larger curriculum they were going through. It was a sort of long-term finishing school, learning the kinds of old-fashioned mannerisms which aren’t taught in No-Child-Left-Behind type schools or Playstation-dominated homes. They were re-learning the art of eye-contact, of complete sentences, of “Please” and “Thank you” and even how to assist a lady into her chair when she’s wearing a 19th century corset.

Of course this is all to better play the roles in the period pieces they performed, but there was something more going on there. I could see that there was some kind of personal polishing, a conditioning that the behavior was bringing out in them that was benefiting them more than in simply assisting in the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

From my point of view, it made me feel more valued as a speaker, seeing their attention, feeling the way they appreciated and wanted to actually engage with the talk I’d prepared. I think it would be safe to say that I was a better speaker simply because they treated me with respect, and that led me to want to be worthy of that respect.

A Practice of Politeness

Unfortunately, many people in contemporary society see politeness as being a weakness, as opposed to being the social lubricant it really is. The thing is, being polite comes from a position of strength – you can always escalate to rudeness if absolutely necessary, but in the meantime treating someone nicely is often the best way to get them to do what you’d like them to do.

And isn’t that the definition of power?

So I’m going to try it this week. Being extra polite to people, extra gracious in my manners. I want to see if it makes as palpable a difference in my everyday life as it did during my talk. Because wow…that was one audience that it was a pleasure to speak with.

3 thoughts on “being nice is powerful”

  1. I really like the concept of (social) lubrication. It is in fact something I put into my worldview long ago, and not exclusively in the social department.

    As I like to put it
    “Even the most carefully crafted machines need some kind of lubrication to run. Of course that doesn’t mean that there are others that are so terrible, lubrication is the only thing keeping them from breaking down and they are so often leaking it to pollute the world. But you can’t judge a machine on whether it uses lubrication, but rather on how it is using it”

    I was thinking society and politics when I conjured up that view, but I think it ties up nicely to politeness too.

    1. Actually, the outcome was that I offended one friend of mine when I addressed a waitstaffperson as “Miss.” Other than that, no discernible outcomes, other than feeling a little awkward when I tried to tip the brim of my hat to an elderly woman on the street and missed it entirely. That resulted in an awkward floppy-finger-waving gesture that I suspect might have alarmed her.

      Yeah, still workin’ on it, though.

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