Virtue needs to start somewhere, and politeness provides a starting point. Good manners prepare us for good deeds. But politeness is not a virtue; it is simply following rules without requiring any moral judgment. Politeness is an artifice. The essence of politeness is form; the essence of virtue is character. 
“Politeness,” La Bruyère notes, “does not always produce kindness of heart, justice, complacency, or gratitude; but it gives to man at least the appearance of it, and makes him seem externally what he really should be.” 
Politeness does not care about morality. A polite bastard is still a bastard, and a well-bred one at that. What is upsetting is the contrast between the appearance of virtue and the prevalence of vice.
When taken too far, politeness becomes insincerity. Truth is not always kind.
With all its frailties, politeness does form a foundation for moral development. Children learn to follow the rules of etiquette before they understand the reasons for the rules. As children grow older and begin to question rules of all sorts, they begin their own moral development. Adolescents may dismiss politeness as arbitrary and superficial, however, they only do so as they begin to think for themselves and understand the difference between polite, impolite, good, and evil.
Politeness maxims, formulated by Geoffrey Leech, lists these six principles of polite conversation: tact, generosity, approbation (approval), modesty, agreement, and sympathy.
Civility is the true virtue beyond the facade of politeness.
Part 1: Notice whenever you compromise honesty, authenticity, sincerity, or justice for the sake of politeness.
Part 2: Examine the rules of politeness you have adopted to understand if they result from showing respect for others, or have some other moral or arbitrary origin.
Part 3: Notice how politeness affects intimacy. When does politeness promote intimacy? When does it inhibit intimacy? Does politeness as you practice it work to strengthen relationships or act to inhibit intimacy and keep others at a distance?
Part 4: Read the accompanying essay on civility to understand the distinctions between politeness and civility, and then consider the following situation. An atheist and an evangelical Christian walk into a bar. After exchanging pleasantries, the evangelist advances the conversation by stating, “The only path to world peace is for every person to accept the love of Jesus Christ, our savior.” What would be a polite response from the atheist? What would be a civil response? How might you handle the situation? (You may wish to switch roles and have the atheist confront the evangelical, or recast this using other religious examples more relevant to you if that makes you more comfortable.)
This assignment is most effective when it is approached as a deep and personal reflection. However, if you are inspired to write about your thoughts from this assignment, feel free to share them by linking them to this list of reflections on the virtue of politeness.
- Comte-Sponville, André (2002). A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life. Picador. p. 368. ISBN 978-0805045567.
- Jean de la Bruyère, The Characters of Jean de la Bruyère, translated by Henri van Laun, Brentano’s, 1929, 32, p. 114. As reported in A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues
Students interested in learning more about politeness and the virtues of civility may be interested in the following materials: