It’s possible that a person can be polite but not be compassionate. Some people can appear one way but be another entirely – which is a subject for a different day – but appropriate for this point. Furthermore, there is a sincere difference between being polite and being compassionate.
Let’s start with a basic example. Say you’re walking in a building at the same moment another person is walking out. This polite person holds the door for you and smiles warmly as you walk inside but doesn’t really care if you trip and fall only five steps past the doorframe. By the time you’ve face-planted in front of a small crowd of people, Mr. or Miss Polite is walking swiftly down the street not thinking another thing about you. Similarly, another polite person may help you to your feet after your misstep while secretly wishing they would have been five steps out the door so as to not have been obligated to help you. However, if a compassionate person sees this scenario unfold, he or she is likely to feel sad for you. You’ve just taken a tumble, and he or she hates that for you and sympathizes with you. Compassionates may even empathize too if they have been in a similar situation. While you feel embarrassed, they can literally feel that as well. Now we’ve all probably been guilty of being the door-holder or helper-upper, but there’s a difference in occasional and regular.
Dig a little deeper, and you can continue to unravel this difference. When you talk to polites, they make eye contact, nod their head, make engaging facial expressions, and cause you to believe that they care about whatever it is you are saying. Polites can recall a topic from an earlier conversation to make you think they care how your problem turned out or what has happened since. Spoiler alert: just because they remember that fact does not mean they really care about it.
So why does this difference matter? It doesn’t necessarily. If this is a co-worker who you see at the water cooler every other day, this difference probably won’t affect you dramatically. But what if you become good friends with the water cooler person? Or what if you start dating the water cooler guy or gal? Then this gets to be a bigger issue. Politeness only goes so far in a relationship. (It goes about as far as the first person mentioned in this article did: five steps inside the door before face-planting.)
This begs the question, how can you tell a compassionate from a polite? Honestly, it’s difficult. First, it takes time to figure them out. People can use politeness as a mask (causing others to see only their polite side), so it takes some time for true colors to show. Plus, if emotions are involved, we will always want to see the good in people, but sometimes, for our own good, we need to be willing to see the whole picture – and discern the difference between being polite and actually caring.
For another thing, compassionates usually are not self-absorbed. Most of the time this is relatively easy to pick up on, even if it is after some time. We all know the people that go into lengthy detail about their private lives even when we don’t ask. No-compassion-polites are smart though. They’re polite, so they probably will not talk your ear off about themselves because, well, that wouldn’t be polite. But when you do ask them about themselves, they make their answer count. They can pinpoint the most influential task they’re a part of at the time, the highest achievement they’ve surmounted recently, or the greatest reward they’ve received lately – all while making this extravagant statement seem oh-so-very humble.
I’m from the South, and I believe in being polite. And it is possible to be both polite and compassionate. But let’s not be fooled by those that are polite but don’t really care. Why? Because you deserve to be cared about. Find those who are willing to feel and who care deeply. You deserve a heart, not just a handshake.