What Separates the Polite from the Frank

The School of Life on Manners and Anthropology

David Zahl / 8.19.20

An excerpt from The School of Life’s remarkable entry on Politeness, which might explain why the “comedy of manners” remains such an enduring genre, grace-wise:

What ultimately separates the Polite from the Frank person isn’t really a knowledge of etiquette. The difference doesn’t hang upon considerations of which knife to use at a formal dinner, when to say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ and how to word a wedding invitation. It comes down to a contrasting set of beliefs about human nature. The Polite and the Frank person behave differently chiefly because they see the world in highly divergent ways.

Frank people believe in the importance of expressing themselves honestly principally because they trust that what they happen to think and feel will always prove to be fundamentally acceptable to the world. Their true sentiments and opinions may, when voiced, be bracing of course — but no worse. These Frank types assume that what is honestly avowed cannot really ever be vindictive, disgusting, tedious or cruel. In this sense, the Frank person sees themselves a little in the way we typically see small children: as blessed by an original and innate goodness.

Even the most etiquette-conscious among us don’t usually think that the strictures of politeness will apply to the very young. We remain interested to hear about whatever may be passing through these diminutive creatures’ minds and stay unalarmed by their awkward moments, infelicities or negative statements. If they say that the pasta is yuk or that the taxi driver has a head like a weird goldfish, it sounds funny rather than wounding. Their habit of addressing their stories to their teddy rather than the adult who is sitting opposite is just a touching sign of their free spiritedness. It doesn’t matter that there is a stain on their T-shirt when they meet a stranger. The Frank person taps into just this child-like optimism in their own uninhibited approach to themselves. Their trust in their basic purity erodes the rationale for editing or self-censorship. They can believe that everything about them will more or less prove fine, whatever they happen to say or do.

The Polite Person, by contrast, proceeds under a catastrophic suspicion of themselves and their impulses. They sense that a great deal of what they feel and want really isn’t very nice. They are indelibly in touch with their darker desires and can sense their fleeting wishes to hurt or humiliate certain people. They know they are sometimes a bit revolting and cannot forget the extent to which they may be offensive and frightening to others. They therefore set out on a deliberate strategy to protect others from what they know is within them. It isn’t lying as such. They merely understand that being ‘themselves’ is a treat they must take enormous pains to spare everyone else from experiencing — especially anyone they claim to care about.

Paradoxically, the polite person who is pessimistic about their own nature, doesn’t in fact end up behaving horribly with anyone. So aware are they of their own dislikable sides, they nimbly minimise their impact upon the world. It is their extraordinary suspicion of themselves that helps them be — in everyday life — uncommonly friendly, trustworthy and kind.


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