You can take politeness too far— now is the time to stop apologizing for everything!
Constantly complimenting people’s appearance
“Oh, you look so skinny!” “Your dress is gorgeous!,” or “Your eyes are the most stunning shade!” These may seem like pleasant compliments at first, but compliments on appearance are shallow and may not be received in the same way you intended, says Bonnie Tsai, an etiquette expert and founder and director of Beyond Etiquette. Furthermore, if you do it all the time, say, if you meet someone, you can feel uncomfortable and unconvincing. “Offer a sincere compliment on their achievements instead,” she says.
Giving long answers to questions
You may think you’re super friendly by giving someone every bit of information they might want to answer a question, but most of the time people just want simple details, especially in a professional setting, says Maryanne Parker, a business and social etiquette consultant in San Diego, author of Posh Overnight, and founder of Manor Manners.
Long replies run the risk that your listener will just shut you out, she says. “Keep your answers short and to the point, they’ll ask follow up questions if they need more information,” she says.
Holding eye contact for too long
Eye contact is a gentle way to let the other person know that you’re interested and involved in what they say. But many people take the “maintain eye contact” rule too far and turn it into an intense staring match or an awkward crazy-eyed death stare, says Jeff Larsen, LMFT, a manner expert and licensed psychotherapist. “Go for a genuine eye-to-eye contact and then look away every once in a while,” he says. It needs to look natural. If you’re not sure about that, ask a friend to practice with you.
Being a yes man or woman
Are you the go-to person when people need a favor? While it’s a good thing that you’re polite, it’s something that can be taken too far. “You may feel great at the moment when you agreed to help because you don’t want to hurt their feelings, but it could end up negatively impacting your relationship due to resentment and exhaustion,” Tsai explains. Not to mention that if you get distracted and end up unable to deliver, it would be more rude and insulting than actually failing to do it in the first place.
Using too many superlatives
Saying something is “awesome” or “fantastic” may be a good compliment, but when it’s “AMAZING!” or “FABULOUS!” you’ve crossed the line from friendly to annoying, Larsen says. Using superlatives sparingly, only if they are justified, otherwise they will become irrelevant, he says.
Hedging your opinions
There’s a difference between wanting to see both sides of the equation and trying to be everything to everyone by never really saying what you think. “You may think you’re being polite by agreeing with everyone but in reality it makes you look weak and indecisive,” Parker says. There are many ways to share a dissenting viewpoint without being offensive or aggressive.
Apologizing for every little thing
Saying “sorry” is a basic principle of politeness, but some people use it poorly, apologizing for everything. “Being overly apologetic or expressing it in situations where it isn’t necessary can indicate that you have low self-esteem which can cause people to take advantage of it,” Tsai says. Even if you’re not taken advantage of, many people find constant apologizing to be very annoying, or may find it hard to understand why you’re so afraid of them.
Touching people inappropriately
A firm handshake is polite. Afterward, physical contact is uncertain with what is considered acceptable, depending very much on the situation and the individuals involved, Larsen says. You may think giving someone a warm hug or rubbing their shoulders is a great way to show your affection, but you run the risk of making them very uncomfortable, especially if the genders are opposite. Keep your hands to yourself, as a general rule, he says.
Always deferring to others’ preferences
Letting other people make all the decisions may feel appropriate, especially when dealing with higher-ups in a business setting. But always asking others to decide puts you at a disadvantage because they learn not to take you seriously, Parker says.
Failing to speak up
Listening is a critical part of politeness— and a lot of people don’t do enough of it— but if you never speak up, that’s an issue, too, Tsai says. “Being too considerate of others and their right to speak costs you the opportunity to share your insight and personality,” she says. A conversation is a two-way street, and it works best if both people use it.
Being ultra PC
Being PC, or “politically correct,” can be a two-edged sword. When done right, it can help you understand and respect people with different lifestyles, opinions, or cultures. But this is a friendly practice that may go too far, Parker says. Many people think being polite is never offending anyone, ever,” she explains.
While you’re supposed to do your best not to be offensive, it’s not possible to please everyone, and being a super PC can make you feel affected or patronized all the time. Instead, focus on being a great listener and knowing how to apologize when you’re messing up.
Clearing the table when others are eating
“Clearing up the dirty dishes may seem like a considerate gesture but if others are still eating, it can be perceived as a signal to end the meal or that you’re telling them to leave,” Tsai says. Even if you’re not the host, it can even come off as disrespectful, as if you don’t think the table is clean if you take over the hosting duties. Please wait until people have finished eating, even if it’s not your home, ask first if you can help them clean up.
Giving one-word answers
People who are worried about over-sharing may believe they’re being polite to keep their answers as short as possible. But while a precise and clear answer is polite, one-word answers are almost never, Parker says. “Answering just ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can feel curt and dismissive,” she explains. This includes electronic communications. A little explanation is always nice.
Skipping all the small talk
Small talk has a bad reputation these days, and many people call small talk something disturbing or problematic. So you might think that by skipping the “How are you?” or the “You enjoying this weather?” You’re doing everyone a favor by getting straight to the point.
While you’re not expected to obfuscate your response, Parker says there’s a lot to say about making a polite conversation instead. It allows people to feel relaxed and to build a relationship. Just avoid the big no-no of religion and politics.
Turning down compliments
“You’re so smart!” “Oh no, I’m just a lucky guesser! I’m really a giant idiot!” You might just try to look politely humble by downplaying compliments— and a bit of self-deprecating humor might be great — but putting yourself down all the time makes you look bad and make others uncomfortable, Parker says. Understanding how to accept a genuine compliment graciously is a polite skill that anyone can learn, she says.