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Politeness seems to be losing value

Thirty-four years ago, when my husband and I decided to marry, we intended to bring our pre-adolescent children together into the same household. They were not entirely pleased with the idea.

Long before our actual nuptials, we introduced my husband’s 9-year-old son to my 10-year-old daughter over a thoughtfully planned restaurant dinner. We had previewed the menu to ensure it contained food items they both favored. For Ward, it was deep-dish pepperoni pizza, and Jen (somewhat amazingly) was at that point in her life completely enamored by mussels that had lots of melted butter for dipping. And, yes, it was difficult to find a restaurant that offered both options.

The introductory dinner went reasonably well, and when I later asked Ward what he thought of his would-be stepsister after meeting her for the first time, his response was, “She seemed very polite.”

In the years that followed, their relationship involved more backyard water-balloon fights and arguments over who-did-what household chore than it did polite interaction, but I like recalling that it started with a recognition of the value of civility.

Ward and Jen are fully launched now and have their own children — they live in different states and do not engage one another all that often anymore, but when they do so, things go reasonably well. And they both have their own children who are, most of the time, very polite.

This week I’m fascinated with the concept of “politeness.” I think it may have gone missing in today’s world. Although when I read our nation’s leader was recorded as saying, “Bring me a Coke, please,” I was buoyed. The word “please” is the foundation for polite behavior. Usually. The words “thank you” are a close second.

Seems like it should be easier. These are such simple affirmations. But it’s not simple at all. Consider the much-quoted statement, “Polite is so rare these days, it’s often confused with flirting.” You think?

While trying to understand all this better, I happened upon something called “negative politeness.” It’s a form of self-protection and a way of keeping a safe distance from others. We all do it at times. And on the other end of the continuum, you can, in fact, be “too polite,” which involves “constantly saying you’re sorry and apologizing for things that are not even in your control.”

Let’s define politeness as “behaviors that are respectful and considerate.” It’s culturally based, so what is considered polite in some environments can be thought impolite or even rude in other cultures. As illustration, belching or burping is a sign of gratitude in some places but is offensive in North America and Europe.

If you’re in Japan, never blow your nose at the dinner table. In Sweden, keep personal distance between you and others when conversing, and don’t touch people when you speak to them. The words “please” and “thank you” (in your language or theirs) are particularly important in Germany, China and France.

Food for thought. Give it some, please. Thank you.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray in My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at Sharon@agefriendlyinnovators.org.