by Alexia Larcher
It makes me somewhat uncomfortable when Canadians are depicted as “being nice”, usually when compared to our American neighbors. It seems a shorthand way of saying that we are polite, we rarely share our opinions, and we are more systematic about exchanging social niceties and getting along to go along. It’s also a contrast to the general notion that introverts are “impolite”. But what is politeness in the first place and how does it fit in with sociability?
Let me try a definition of politeness first. Politeness is the act of accepting and displaying a set of cultural norms in an effort to smooth social interactions. When you think about it, politeness does not change our personalities. We might choose to be polite or impolite towards someone, but it means little about our personality as a whole. Of course, if you make a habit of being polite or impolite, it will inevitably change your reputation and who you are, but in the short run, an act of politeness does not mean all that much.
On the other hand, humans tend to look out for signs of cooperativeness and selfishness. We would rather work with cooperative people, buy items from their stores or trade with them, build a household with them. We don’t expect cooperation from our competitors, but we expect it for most of our daily interactions. Few people want to spend every waking moment in competition with someone else. In that respect, politeness is definitely a sign of cooperativeness. The cultural norms defining politeness and, by extension, cooperativeness, may change, but the principle remains the same.
When we accuse introverts of being impolite and selfish, we are essentially saying three things:
1) that introverts do not understand social norms
2) that introverts *choose not to follow* social norms
3) that because of 1) and 2), it shows that introverts are uncooperative, i.e. selfish, and do not deserve our trust and respect
If you look at the facts, 1) actually relates to things such as cultural clashes, observation skills, and, in some cases, autism and 2) actually relates to conformity. Neither of these are caused specifically by introversion.
Ultimately, we are confusing cooperativeness with sociability. We are postulating that people who meet 100 people per day are more cooperative than people who meet 10 people per day. If we were to follow this argument to its logical conclusion, city folks would inevitably and systematically be more cooperative than country folks. Country folks would become more cooperative than city folks if they moved to the city and city folks would be less cooperative if they moved to the country.
Why the confusion? Since most work involves working with others, we value cooperativeness quite a bit. The cues for cooperativeness has been lumped by the North American business community as “soft skills” and they include knowledge on things such as posture, smiling, distance, tone, phrasing, levels of formal speech, work-specific slang, gender- or race-based norms, etc. Mimicry is one form of politeness after all (see Mirroring – http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110728103139.htm). But there are other signs of cooperativeness, such as politeness. Even listening to others is a sign of cooperativeness – check out active listening (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201203/11-ways-active-listening-can-help-your-relationships). Go out of your way to tally successful group projects and social interactions and share them with others.
We also believe that the more we expose ourselves to social situations, the more likely we will master these soft skills. Yet placing yourself in a situation does not mean you will learn from it, especially if you have neither lesson plan nor follow-up. Do you as an extrovert even know what social skills you need to work on? If humans had to socially fine-tune themselves to every other human before being able to cooperate, we would never get anywhere, so cooperativeness cues have to be relatively easy to learn. By the time we’re adults, most of us know them already.
In no way is it impolite to fill your own needs as an introvert. However, it’s quite possible to express these needs politely. Yelling “AAAH! JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!” to your coworkers and loved ones will not entice them to put effort in the relationship. We do need to say something, but we need the time to script it, we need the proper stage, and even the proper atmosphere (and you thought public speaking was hard). The longer we silence our needs, the harder that first time will be, no lies. Where will we find the words? But every repetition makes the next time easier and further shapes the habit. We need to politely ask extroverts not to interrupt our thoughts just because we are not spontaneous speakers like they are. Practice that silence in the conversation.It pays for us to speak up just as much as it pays for extroverts to listen without interrupting.
For more about scripts, read some of Captain Awkward’s posts and her excellent commenters for various social script ideas: http://captainawkward.com/