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  • Writer's pictureChuck Cusumano

Politeness Versus Kindness

By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus

Politeness versus kindness… As an organization that specializes in consulting and coaching, we hear the two terms confused many times. It is important to understand the differentiation and the characteristics of each behavior to aid in interviewing, recruiting, and in developing employees to higher levels of leadership. After all, politeness and kindness are two related but distinct behaviors.

Politeness refers to the act of being courteous, respectful and considerate toward others. It involves using appropriate language, following societal norms and conventions, using formal titles, having manners, and addressing people in a specific way. Politeness uses behaviors to maintain good social relations. It can also involve saying or doing things to avoid offending others, even if it means hiding one's true feelings or not being entirely honest. An example of politeness would be the movie scene in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" where Gustave, the concierge, is always polite and professional to the guests, even when he is upset. Politeness is often associated with social etiquette – saying "please" and "thank you," holding the door open for someone, and avoiding offensive language or behavior. In the Southern U.S., it would be “Yes sir” and “Yes ma’am” when responding to someone.

Kindness, on the other hand, refers to the act of being compassionate and caring toward others. It involves going beyond what is expected or required to help support someone. Kindness is often driven by empathy and a genuine desire to help someone other than yourself. It involves actively trying to improve the well-being of others through acts of generosity, empathy, and selflessness. Examples of kindness may include volunteering at a shelter, bringing over chicken soup for a sick friend, or buying a meal for a stranger in need. An example of kindness can be seen in the movie "It's a Wonderful Life," where the main character, George Bailey, goes out of his way to help his community, despite his own personal struggles, or the scene in "Forrest Gump" where Forrest saves his fellow soldiers during the war, showing genuine concern and care for their well-being in the face of danger. Kindness is more about the intention behind the actions rather than following social norms.

Ultimately, politeness is about being courteous and respectful in one's interactions with others to increase societal cohesion while kindness is about actively trying to improve the well-being of others through acts of generosity, empathy, and selflessness to build a more caring and compassionate society. In perfect alignment, we would strive to be both. However, research and experience tells us that we tend to favor one behavior over the other. Here is why:

  • Personality: Some people may have a naturally kind and compassionate personality, while others may be more reserved and polite. For example, an individual with a higher capacity for empathy and compassion may be more inclined to act with kindness, whereas an individual who is more reserved or introverted may be more inclined to act politely.

  • Upbringing and Environment: The way someone is raised and the environment to which they are exposed can also influence his or her behavior. For example, if someone is raised in a household where kindness and compassion are valued and modeled, he or she may be more inclined to act with kindness. On the other hand, if someone is raised in an environment where politeness and etiquette are emphasized, he or she may be more inclined to act politely. Some people may be naturally inclined to be kind and empathetic, while others may have learned to be polite through their upbringing or cultural influences. Research suggests that genetics and environment both play a role in shaping an individual's personality and behavior.

  • Social Norms and Cultural Values: Different cultures and societies may have different norms and values surrounding politeness and kindness. Some cultures may place a greater emphasis on politeness and respect for social norms, where showing respect and deference to authority figures may be considered more important than being kind. While in other cultures, being kind, empathic, and compassionate may be more highly valued.

  • Life Experiences: Life experiences can also shape an individual's behavior. For example, someone who has been the recipient of kindness may be more inclined to act kindly toward others, whereas someone who has been hurt by the actions of others may be more inclined to act politely as a form of self-protection. Someone who has experienced hardship or suffering may be more inclined to be kind and empathetic toward others, while someone who has had more privileged experiences may be more focused on maintaining social etiquette.

  • Self-awareness: Individuals with high emotional intelligence may actively choose to act kindly or politely in different situations. The more self-aware a person is, the more likely they are to accurately choose which or both of the behaviors they want to represent.

It is important to note that people can act differently depending on the situation and context, and that politeness and kindness are not mutually exclusive. A person can be both polite and kind, and they can also exhibit politeness and kindness in different ways.

If you want to lean more about being kind or how to instill a more polite culture in your organization, reach out to us at We will strive to be both courteous and caring while working with you!

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