Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Perils of polite misunderstandings

Date:
October 11, 2011
Source:
Association for Psychological Science
Summary:
Your friend debuts a questionable haircut and asks what you think of it. Brutal honesty would definitely hurt his feelings, so what do you say? Most people in this situation would probably opt for a vague or evasive response, along the lines of "It's really unique!" or "It's so you!" Politeness helps us get through awkward social situations like these and makes it easier for us to maintain our relationships.

Your friend debuts a questionable haircut and asks what you think of it. Brutal honesty would definitely hurt his feelings, so what do you say? Most people in this situation would probably opt for a vague or evasive response, along the lines of "It's really unique!" or "It's so you!" Politeness helps us get through awkward social situations like these and makes it easier for us to maintain our relationships. But a new article published in the October issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that this kind of politeness can have disastrous consequences, especially in high-stakes situations.

According to authors Jean-Fran็ois Bonnefon and Wim de Neys of CNRS and Universit้ de Toulouse and Aidan Feeney of Queen's University, we resort to politeness strategies when we have to share information that might offend or embarrass someone or information that suggests someone has made a mistake or a bad choice. The more sensitive an issue is, the more likely we are to use these kinds of politeness strategies.

Politeness can become problematic, however, when it causes us to sacrifice clarity. Existing research suggests that politeness strategies can lead to confusion about the meaning of statements that, under other circumstances, would be clear. And this confusion is especially likely to occur in high-stakes situations, the very situations in which we are most likely to use politeness strategies.

Even worse, say the authors, it takes more of our cognitive resources to process these kinds of polite statements. Thus, "[w]e must think harder when we consider the possibility that people are being polite, and this harder thinking leaves us in a greater state of uncertainty about what is really meant."

This confusion and uncertainty can have particularly negative consequences when safety and security are on the line -- such as for pilots trying to fly a plane in an emergency or for a doctor trying to help a patient decide on a treatment. Politeness can also have serious consequences within corporate culture -- people don't want to embarrass their bosses or their co-workers, so they hesitate to point out when something looks amiss, even when potential fraud or misconduct might be involved.

So how can we make sure to get around the confusion of politeness? One option is to encourage people to be more assertive in high-stakes situations. Some companies, including airlines, have even instituted assertiveness training programs, but it's not yet clear whether these programs really work.

Another option is to try to make the interpretation of polite statements easier for people. "Say that there is a tone, a prosodic feature which typically signals that politeness is at work," says Bonnefon. If we can identify this tone, we could "train pilots or other professionals to react intuitively to that tone in order to treat it as a warning signal."

While politeness can be detrimental in certain situations, Bonnefon takes pains to point out that the goal of this research is not to encourage or license general impoliteness -- "politeness is obviously a very positive behavior in most cases," he concludes.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Association for Psychological Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. J.-F. Bonnefon, A. Feeney, W. De Neys. The Risk of Polite Misunderstandings. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2011; 20 (5): 321 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411418472

Cite This Page:

Association for Psychological Science. "Perils of polite misunderstandings." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 October 2011. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111011145729.htm>.
Association for Psychological Science. (2011, October 11). Perils of polite misunderstandings. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 23, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111011145729.htm
Association for Psychological Science. "Perils of polite misunderstandings." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/10/111011145729.htm (accessed September 23, 2014).

Share This



More Science & Society News

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Ebola Costs Keep Mounting

Ebola Costs Keep Mounting

Reuters - Business Video Online (Sep. 23, 2014) — The WHO has warned up to 20,000 people could be infected with Ebola over the next few weeks. As Sonia Legg reports, the implications for the West African countries suffering from the disease are huge. Video provided by Reuters
Powered by NewsLook.com
Liberia Pleads for Help to Fight Ebola

Liberia Pleads for Help to Fight Ebola

AP (Sep. 22, 2014) — Liberia's finance minister is urging the international community to quickly follow through on pledges of cash to battle Ebola. Bodies are piling up in the capital Monrovia as the nation awaits more help. (Sept. 22) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Hundreds of Thousands Hit NYC Streets to Protest Climate Change

Hundreds of Thousands Hit NYC Streets to Protest Climate Change

AFP (Sep. 22, 2014) — Celebrities, political leaders and the masses rallied in New York and across the globe demanding urgent action on climate change, with organizers saying 600,000 people hit the streets. Duration: 01:19 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Company Copies Keys From Photos

Company Copies Keys From Photos

Newsy (Sep. 22, 2014) — A new company allows customers to make copies of keys by simply uploading a couple of photos. But could it also be great for thieves? Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories

 

Science & Society

Business & Industry

Education & Learning

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins