When politics gets so serious that politeness gets thrown to one side

I’ve been in the Liberal party/Liberal Democrats for 25 years. I am happy to say that I have great friends and colleagues in the party and it is a pleasure to work alongside them. 99.99999 recurring % of Lib Dems are unfailingly joyous to deal with.

But I feel I ought to observe that there is a minuscule number of people who have hearts of gold, have the noblest of intentions, but don’t seem to realize that they are not observing basic politeness.

I’m talking about “topping and tailing” contact. Whether it be by email, phone or in person, I am a great believer in a salutation, a mutual enquiry on well-being, followed by listening if the other person isn’t too well, and then a farewell or “have a nice day” at the end. Simples.

But there are a very small number of people who don’t observe such niceties. I think they take the aims of the party very seriously. But when you work closely with them for years, then don’t see them for several months, then you get a “Yes?” only when you contact them – or worse still they look straight through you because they feel you have crossed them but haven’t seen fit to tell you how you have offended them….that’s when I begin to wonder:

1. Do such persons realize that volunteers like me may look up to them as heroines or heroes? When we have a rare encounter with them and they appear to have a strop on, do they realize that this causes great disappointment? Do they realize that just a few words of greeting or farewell would make an enormously positive difference?

2. Should these persons perhaps consider whether they should change what they are doing? If they are working hard on particular political stuff which is causing them to stress out and abandon basic politeness, might now not be a good time to consider whether they should cut back on some stuff, take it easy a bit, do stuff they enjoy more and do stuff they don’t enjoy less?

It’s just a thought… I hold no bitterness against such persons. They are within their rights not to go on a charm offensive, and they are very sincere and genuine people.

And, of course, one makes allowances for people who “go quiet” because they are undergoing some personal trauma which they’d prefer not to share. And, by the way, I don’t have any specific people in mind as I write this – I am more referring to a general phenomenon than to specific individuals. I am talking about a small genre of people for whom, over a period of decades, even a modicum of politeness seems to be a foreign country.

And, yes, it is conceivable that the minute ratio of politeness-averse people in the LibDems is the same as for the general population – it’s just I haven’t found that in my years on the planet.

And, yes, I add the caveat that I have been insensitive to others at times, and to those people I offer my belated apologies, if I have not already apologised.

Finally, perhaps I can illustrate the point by highlighting the positive end of the spectrum. If we take, say, Tim Farron, Norman Lamb and Sal Brinton as examples – I have found all three of these to be the most polite and charming people (I could name many others). They reply to emails and tweets in the most polite and friendly way. When you greet them in person they are utterly charming. They are great models, in my view.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist. He is one of the Liberal Democrat Voice team. He blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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24 Comments

  • How do you do Paul? – I hope you are feeling well!

    “And, by the way, I don’t have any specific people in mind as I write this – ”

    Nonetheless, your article will have us all second guessing, of whom you might possibly have in mind!

    Best wishes, Martin

  • Jayne Mansfield 18th Aug '15 - 5:44pm

    If you look up to people who behave like that Paul, you are looking up to the wrong people.

  • it is a sad fact that many politicians (and others in highly competitive jobs) climb the greasy pole by treading on others and it may be a mistake to confuse their carefully constructed image with reality. It can be a shock to realise that Mr Nice Guy is a nasty piece of work after all.

    Hopefully, most of us can manage to avoid such people. I agree with you that politeness is the least we should expect in our contacts with others, whether they are people of great power or at the opposite end of the spectrum. We can all set an example by treating others as we would wish to be treated by them.

  • Eddie Sammon 18th Aug '15 - 6:00pm

    I find that I often have to remind myself to be polite, but I never seem to learn properly. I think for people who aren’t trying to get elected or win a promotion then winning the policy argument seems to come first before winning friends and supporters.

    However, having said that, I always have the greatest respect for people, I just don’t always show it!

  • Mavarine Du-Marie 18th Aug '15 - 6:30pm

    The problem I think is the way politeness is construed for some people automatically think you are after something, or you fancy them because you are being polite/friendly (no charm offensive). Sometimes those people that we deem non-polite could never be accused of that and therefore looked upon as serious non-wasting time kinda people!! Looking at it from another perspective civility for civility sake seems kind of hypocritical. Mmmmm…. Still ain’t buying it.

  • Paul Walter “And, yes, I add the caveat that I have been insensitive to others at times, and to those people I offer my belated apologies, if I have not already apologised.”

    Thanks, apology accepted.

  • Eddie Sammon, I was about to write, in your defence, that you do always end your posts with “Regards” which I find quite charming but I just noticed that, ironically, you have omitted it in your post above 🙂

  • All very true Paul and something for all of us to reflect on. When I went to the leadership hustings in my area recently, I said to the friends I was sitting with that we shouldn’t just sit as our usual clique but should make a real effort to go and talk to some of the new members, and be really nice to them. One of my friends did comment that we could perhaps do this at all meetings, not just at times when we have seen a big increase in new members! She was of course quite right, and its something we all need to try and remember.
    By the way, I have to admit I’m having a really hard time believing that you wrote this without having one or two specific individuals in mind. 🙂

  • Richard Underhill 18th Aug '15 - 9:15pm

    The agent in a borough council by-election has instructed the candidate not to canvass his own street, because the response of his neighbours might be politeness, but sincerity needs also to be judged.

  • sally haynes-preece 19th Aug '15 - 9:08am

    I can easily imagine time constraints making this difficult. Also some electronic conversations can extend over several emails. While my first will include some of greeting and sign off……subsequent responses may well be very brief. However the ability to set up a permanent signatures on emails should make this automatic for the most part. Politeness does matter…but sadly in an area like politics where passionate views can be involved politeness can be the first casualty

  • peter tyzack 19th Aug '15 - 9:59am

    funny how some people get put on a pedestal, when perhaps they should be stuck on a pole..

  • Written correspondence is one thing, in person or on the phone is another and I find people’s phone manner appalling today. Instantly uptight or antagonistic, non friendly, rude, dismissive – but it’s not just a party thing. It does need challenging

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Aug '15 - 11:01am

    Paul Walter

    But I feel I ought to observe that there is a minuscule number of people who have hearts of gold, have the noblest of intentions, but don’t seem to realize that they are not observing basic politeness

    I remember when I was dealing with an applicant to the university course I teach on (Computer Science), taking a call from an anxious parent who said “He’s got Asperger’s Syndrome, will he be alright?” to which my reply was “Welcome to the club”. It’s practically a requirement, you see. OK, I’m exaggerating, but what you see as politeness-adverseness is a character type, and it’s a character type which does seem to have some correlation with being able to deal with logic and abstraction. Actually, someone who comes across like this may not have Asperger’s (these days the preferred terminology is “on the autism spectrum”), they may just have an introverted character. If it’s introversion rather than Aspergers, the people you are complaining about are more able with effort to come across better, but don’t think it is necessarily easy for them.

    People with this sort of character are often attracted to get active in political parties. The thing is, they feel uncomfortable in casual social interaction, so they like social activities which have a more formal structure, where you don’t feel forced to engage in small-talk and where there are tasks you can get on and do. In my experience, quite a high proportion of the Liberal Democrats is of that sort. As you say, people like that are often sincere and genuine, and once you get to know them you realise that, but at first, yes, they may seem rude or arrogant.

    Yes, of course I’m talking about myself as pretty typical of that type. Please don’t tell me (as you seem to be doing) that people like me are not welcome in the Liberal Democrats, because these days only extroverts are allowed to be politically active.

  • Peter Andrews 19th Aug '15 - 11:14am

    Whereas I hate all the faux politeness and would rather people would just get to the point (face to face with someone who knows me is different). This is especially true of phone calls when the person ringing has no idea what they might have interrupted you in the middle of.

  • Eddie Sammon 19th Aug '15 - 11:37am

    Thanks Phyllis! 🙂

  • Ross Fifield 19th Aug '15 - 1:32pm

    If there’s such a miniscule cohort of impolite people, why is this such a big issue? Simply move on and work with others. There are far more important things we need from our representatives right now – an articulate and effective Liberal Ideology for example?

  • I understand that when Paddington Bear was translated into German, large sections had to be omitted as meaningless and incomprehensible to the German reader. These were the unnecessary “polite” phrases, such as the “how do you do” which a German would simply not waste time asking, and the “I hope you are well” which a German would assume would only be asked in cases of genuine concern about the respondent’s health. There is something to be said for directness.

  • Tony Dawson 21st Aug '15 - 2:48pm

    “David Allen 19th Aug ’15 – 11:35pm
    I understand that when Paddington Bear was translated into German, large sections had to be omitted as meaningless and incomprehensible to the German reader. These were the unnecessary “polite” phrases, such as the “how do you do” which a German would simply not waste time asking, and the “I hope you are well” which a German would assume would only be asked in cases of genuine concern about the respondent’s health. ”

    Those of us who have lived and worked in Germany would not recognise these reasons having any validity. Bavaria, now, that is another matter – and another country! 😉

  • Richard Underhill 21st Aug '15 - 3:22pm

    Matthew Huntbach 19th Aug ’15 – 11:01am
    “People with this sort of character are often attracted to get active in political parties. The thing is, they feel uncomfortable in casual social interaction, so they like social activities which have a more formal structure, where you don’t feel forced to engage in small-talk and where there are tasks you can get on and do. In my experience, quite a high proportion of the Liberal Democrats is of that sort. As you say, people like that are often sincere and genuine, and once you get to know them you realise that, but at first, yes, they may seem rude or arrogant.”

    Therefore we need these people out on the doorstep, a little bit of good training and a structured situation is ideal. Very few voters are actually rude, although many are actaully cooking or eating, bathing the baby, etc.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Aug '15 - 9:52pm

    Richard Underhill

    Therefore we need these people out on the doorstep, a little bit of good training and a structured situation is ideal. Very few voters are actually rude, although many are actaully cooking or eating, bathing the baby, etc

    You are misunderstanding what I am saying. Introversion does not necessarily mean shyness.

    As I said, I recognise myself in these characteristics. I know that I myself often come across as “rude” because I am not good at small-talk, tend to go quiet in social situations, tend to be quick and to the point in conversations, not topping and tailing it in the way Paul Walters says we should do. I don’t mean to be rude, and I do try to overcome this aspect, but I can tell you, it’s a struggle for me. However, I’ve never had any difficulties canvassing. Or speaking in front of large numbers of people (which is part of my job). People who know me and think of me as very quiet, and suppose from this that I am “shy” are often surprised by this.

    Actually, of course, what you want with canvassers is people who are quick and to the point. The best canvassers are those who get the voting intentions down as quickly as possible, and don’t waste time in political argument. The idea that canvassers are a sort of door-to-door salesperson is wrong.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Aug '15 - 11:55am

    Matthew Huntbach 23rd Aug ’15 – 9:52pm i have not said you are rude and i hope i have not implied that.
    “The idea that canvassers are a sort of door-to-door salesperson … ” is an idea you disagree with, but, horses for courses.
    We are currently canvassing in a borough council by-election in Southborough. If we ask people how they voted in May some of them are likely to strengthen an affiliation to their Tory MP. PM, etc.
    What we need is to persuade them that we have a good local candidate who will put Southborough first, whereas the Tory will do what his leader tells him to do, even though the Tory leader does not live in the ward or the borough.
    There are at least two kinds of doorstep canvassing, both of which apply in different circumstances.
    Most importantly nominations have closed and there is no Labour or Green candidate. The electorate have put our MPs into opposition. We are starting to get back some of the people who would not vote for us during the coalition.

  • There’s nearly certainly reasons as to why they behave in this way, but whatever that is doesn’t really matter, I think it’s more important we take people as they come rather than trying to make everyone adhere to the same synthetic social constructs.

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