The hierarchy of politeness

You don’t like to be rude to people. But some people don’t read subtle social cues. You get frustrated because they don’t understand what you’re trying to communicate when you’re being nice. But being blunt seems so, well, rude!

This is why I invented the term “The hierarchy of politeness.” You may do these steps intuitively. Or, if you’re like most people, you stop before doing what you consider too blunt, and therefore, rude.

And you end up feeling frustrated.

Let me walk you through a common scenario and how to use the hierarchy of politeness.

Level 1: Subtle, nice

Fred, a long-winded and socially inept coworker comes into your cubicle and sits in your guest chair. “How you doing?” he asks.

“I’m fine” you respond, and before really thinking about it, you add, “How are you?” As soon as it’s out of your mouth you realize your mistake.

“I’ve been moving kinda slow because of my irritable bowel syndrome…” and he’s off, telling you way too much information. You’re stuck, as you feel it’s impolite to interrupt. You try to not make eye contact, so he’ll get the hint you’re not interested. Maybe you even glance at your screen or your phone.

Level 2: Focus

When he takes a breath, you decide to focus the conversation. “I’m sorry to hear that, Fred. What can I help you with today?”

“Oh, yeah, I did come in here for a reason. You know that project that Bill wanted me to work on? Well, I don’t know what to do next. You see, I already talked to Alice and she said to ask Mary, and Mary said to ask Irving, who told me to discuss it with Luis, who said you were the person. Which is why I’m here!”

“I need a bit more info about what you’d like from me.”

“Sure.” Fred rambles some more.

Level 3: Setting limits

“Fred, I have a meeting in 10 minutes. I don’t have what you need at hand. Can I get back to you later?”

“Sure.” Fred stays seated in your guest chair and starts telling you about the big fish he caught over the weekend. You look at your watch. You straighten your papers. You may even glance at your new emails. Fred doesn’t see any of these as signs to move on. Finally, at 5 minutes before your meeting time, you stand up. “Fred, I’m sorry, but I really have to go.”

“Oh. OK. Where’s your meeting?”

“In the Godzilla conference room.”

“I’ll walk that way with you so I can tell you more about my fishing trip.”

Internally you sigh. He’s not seen any of the signs of your disinterest.

Level 4: Stronger limit setting

“Fred, I have to get my thoughts together for the meeting, so I’m afraid it wouldn’t be good for you to walk with me.”

“Don’t worry. My story won’t take long. You’ll have plenty of time to think before the meeting. And besides, meetings always start late around here.”

Level 5: Blunt and direct

“Fred, I need to walk in silence to go over what I’ll say for my status report. You need to leave now so I can get my thoughts together.” You turn and leave your cubicle, even though Fred is still there.


The hierarchy of politeness begins with you doing what you think is most polite in order to accomplish what you need. Then you escalate your behaviors through the different levels until the person finally gets what you are wanting to communicate, even though you may think that level is rude. If you started at that level, it may be rude. But s/he is unable to interpret your signals accurately, so you have to be more and more direct and blunt until the message is received.

Have you used a version of the hierarchy of politeness? If so, tell us your levels and how it’s worked.







1 thought on “The hierarchy of politeness”

  1. This article is a gem,however, my problem is at a different level. I am a small business entrepreneur.

    My style is ( carry forward from by previous profession as a therapist) of making suggestions rather than issuing orders and giving credit to any view, or objection, the employee might have.

    This at times results in a attitude of know it all from some staff, because the believe that I do not know how to do things and without them I would fail. Unfortunately we are too small to devote energy and time to retrain these kind of people and we end up terminating their services.

    Now these would be great employees, were it not for their know it all attitude, I wish there were a simple way to deal with this issue.

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