One the more important functions of spoken language is to maintain the peace.
Polite talk is a collection of sounds, words and phrases that signal peaceful
intuitions and acknowledge social status. Some polite sounds send a direct
signal that inhibits aggression and anger. Polite talk is part of a collection
of behaviors that manifest social status within a hierarchy. Stability in a
group involves spoken interactions that fine-tune social status. A dominant
human is confident and can command or demand with little or no polite talk. A
submissive human makes appeasing sounds and uses words of deference along with
statements of compliance. When strangers meet, they exchange greeting words and
behaviors that establish status.
Calm is an important emotional expression with social significance. Humans
associate dominance with strength and confidence. A powerful leader will be
emotionally neutral. His or her strength is expressed as fearlessness and
competence as composure. Distraught humans in threatening circumstances will
follow a calm, confident leader. A leader who loses his composure will
lose his followers.
The goal of polite society is to create and maintain social environments that
are emotionally neutral. Thus, public places, schools and work environments are
designed to inhibit emotional displays and encourage polite behaviors. Emotional
stability is an essential requirement for polite behavior.
Polite conversations are constrained by implicit rules so that provocative
comments, rude gestures and negative emotions are avoided. An impolite
participant can lead a conversing group toward an angry confrontation and
disrupt the entire gathering. An astute host will only invite compatible guests
to the party and will arrange seating and entertainment to avoid abrasive
encounters. Polite society has always used breeding, education, and past
performance as the main criteria to include appropriate guests or to exclude
unsuitable people who may misbehave. Training in polite talk begins at an early
age in the best of families, continues in schools and is fully expressed in the
social behaviors of adults who enjoy acceptance, privilege and prestige.
At a deeply personal level, states of contentment are emotionally neutral –
no disturbances. Your consciousness is clear. You are content, calm and
centered. The idea of perfect happiness has been expressed in metaphors such as
the still pool of water and the clear blue sky. Emotions are disruptive. Even
“good feelings” disturb the calm, untroubled mind. Smart, competent people tend
to be calmer people. Compassionate people have conquered their anger and fear.
Equal strangers are polite when the first meet; they exchange standard
greetings and converse about neutral subjects such as the weather. If
their conversation continues, both will attempt to establish dominance over the
other, at first by subtle gestures and well chosen words. Unequal strangers will
show status-specific behaviors with degrees of dominance and submission.
Conflict arises when one of the strangers behaves inappropriately. Deference is
the antidote to conflict. In well-organized social situations status is
recognized and conspicuously displayed so that there are few opportunities for
Proper distance is another feature of polite talk. Standing close is
permitted only among friends and intimates. A stranger who stands too close is
unwelcome or threatening. A dominant human who approaches closely is
Humans evaluate each other continuously and notice speech features,
peculiarities and inappropriate words. The description “good personality”
suggests that a person’s language and behavior suits the needs and standards of
a specific group. Skilful humans learn appropriate polite talk and tell suitable
stories in different social settings. The most agreeable people are polite,
informative and entertaining. While a good performance is a social asset, a good
listener may be more highly regarded. Asking good questions and listening
attentively to the answers is a time-honored strategy for social success. A
polite listener uses little sounds as counterpoint to show approval of the
speaker’s remarks. You can say very little, listen with agreement and your
companion will conclude that you are very intelligent. A well informed rebuttal
will have the opposite effect.