Politeness Can Be Toxic

19 04 2010

There’s a linguist in the USA, Charlotte Linde by name, who’s done some very interesting work on cockpit conversations. You know, in planes, between pilot and co-pilot. Not just any such conversations – her specialty is cockpit conversations just prior to a crash.

In other words: What’s going on in the talk at the point of the nose-dive? Recovered from the black box, and analyzed post-crash, these dialogues have a great deal to reveal. No doubt this is why such extraordinary efforts are invested in preserving talk that might otherwise be highly ephemeral. Like most talk, here today, gone tomorrow.

In a nutshell, they show that politeness is incompatible with emergency. This is because politeness is wordy and wordiness gets in the way of clarity. And when the going gets tough, clarity is what you want.  It’s the same reason, theatre surgeons don’t say things like, “I wonder, nurse, if you’d mind checking the range of scalpels you have at your side there in that tray, and passing me one, when you’re ready.” Likewise, in the army, especially in combat scenarios, commands are given briefly, minimally and unambiguously. You’d never hear: “Corporal, go over that way, see how many enemy soldiers you can kill, look out for snipers, and take care of yourself. We don’t want you getting hurt.”

However, it’s not only in life-and-death contexts that politeness can be clumsy. Take the following conversation I had at a Sydney theatre box office, a far cry from a plane crash or a surgical procedure or a combat zone. Well, under usual circumstances, anyway.

It’s a real-time, face-to-face conversation. What we call “transactional”, rather than “interpersonal”. I’m not trying to get to know the chap working there. I’m just trying to get some information, and maybe then, if all goes well,  acting on the information. In other words, this is about goods-and-services, not relationships.

I’ve come in to the theatre to ask a question about my subscription. I want to know if I can transfer some of my tickets to someone else.  The conversation is not without its own challenges, however. In order to be heard, I have to lean in quite some way; and the glass screen separating us is tinted, so the visuals are also compromised.

This is what ensues. The box office man starts off, replying to my inquiry.

I think you can’t do that.

I can’t?

Mmm, I think you can’t.

You think, but you don’t know?

Well, I do know, that’s what I’m saying, I think you can’t do that.

You’re not sure, though, are you?

Well, I am sure, actually.

So you know that I can’t do it?

That’s right. You can’t.

So why did you say you “think”  I can’t?

Because that’s what I think is the case.

But it’s not just your opinion. You seem to know that this actually is the case.

Yes, that’s right.

So, there’s a policy about this and you know what it is.

Yes that’s right.

So, if someone comes up to you, in the box office, to ask about this policy, and you’re there and you know the answer, why would you compromise your assertion by saying “I think”?

Um, because I’m giving my opinion on the policy.

But the policy is a matter of fact, not opinion. It’s fixed and un-negotiable, surely.

Yes, that’s right.

So what is wanted in such a situation, is the policy, not your take on the policy.


Where you have a knowledge of the facts and that’s all you have to transmit.

I think that’s what I did, isn’t it?

No, you didn’t, you phrased the information in such a way as to create doubt.

Did I do that?

Yes, you did.

I think I didn’t.

There, you’ve done it again. You know that you didn’t, but you persist in using “think”.

I’m just being polite.

Ah “polite”. Yes. But have you thought about what you might lose as a consequence of your politeness?

No, I don’t think I have.

Written out like this, it seems interminable; and I can’t say I came away confident that I had a convert to the cause of clear communication.

Linguistic politeness has multiple roles and they’re mostly valid and purposeful. In essence, it comes down to showing respect and/or avoiding abrasion between people engaged in the complex work of verbal interaction.

It’s possible to keep it clean and clear, without sacrificing quality or causing offence. Though sometimes, as with my conversation with the box office man, polite and clear seem destined to collide.

PS Since writing this blog, I’ve been alerted to the fact that Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers had a chapter on this very topic.

PPS Since writing the above PS, I have read the Gladwell book and highly recommend the chapter on fatal cockpit talk.




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