Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


The Perils of Polite Misunderstandings

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-François Bonnefon and Wim de Neys of CNRS and Université 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.

For more information about this study, please contact: Jean-François Bonnefon at

Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, publishes concise reviews on the latest advances in theory and research spanning all of scientific psychology and its applications. For a copy of "The Risk of Polite Misunderstandings" and access to other Current Directions in Psychological Science research findings, please contact Divya Menon at 202-293-9300 or

Divya Menon | EurekAlert!
Further information:

Further reports about: Misunderstandings Perils Politeness Science TV social situation

More articles from Studies and Analyses:

nachricht Diagnoses: When Are Several Opinions Better Than One?
19.07.2016 | Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung

nachricht High in calories and low in nutrients when adolescents share pictures of food online
07.04.2016 | University of Gothenburg

All articles from Studies and Analyses >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>