12 signs you’re actually too polite (and it’s holding you back)

by Brendan Brown | September 22, 2023, 1:56 pm

Sometimes, I’m amazed that we all get along as well as we do.

Very few other animals could spend their lives surrounded by strangers the way most of us do without endless conflict.

And one of the ways humans manage to preserve their societies is through politeness.

Manners are the unwritten rules that allow us to get on in large groups and avoid conflict with one another.

But as important as manners are in any society, there is such a thing as being too polite.

Take it from me, as someone who grew up in the UK and spent decades in Canada, two societies where manners are sacred. Sometimes, being too polite can hold you back.

Here are some of the signs your manners are a little too well-developed:

1) You’re always saying sorry

Once, while visiting the UK, we were shopping in a supermarket when my wife started laughing.

“What’s up?” I asked her.

“It’s just… Everyone keeps saying sorry,” she chuckled.

She’s not from the UK like I am. So she notices some of these cultural differences that seem normal to me.

A survey by the UK government found that British people are significantly more likely to apologize for something than Americans, especially when the thing they’re apologizing for isn’t actually their fault.

The same survey also found that women apologize far more than men, whether it’s in the UK or in the United States.

Being able to apologize when you’ve done something wrong is one of the most important skills you can develop to become an emotionally mature person.

At the same time, constantly apologizing for things that aren’t your fault can easily become a bad habit.

Saying sorry all the time robs a real apology of its sincerity. So try to avoid apologizing for things that aren’t your fault.

2) You make way for others

Recently, we went to a baseball game. As we left the game along with thousands of other people, we found ourselves in the crowded streets of downtown Toronto.

We were sitting on a wall taking a break when a crowd of people stopped close to us.

My wife, being the polite person she is, got up and moved to make some space for the strangers. 

They then filled that space and ended up just as close to her as they were before she moved.

In crowded environments, we all have to make space for one another.

But being overly polite can lead to putting other people’s needs before your own. Ultimately, you have the same right to take up space as anybody else on the planet.

You shouldn’t be rude and obnoxious. If it’s easy to make space for other people, manners dictate that you should.

But if you find yourself constantly moving out of the way of other people who seem oblivious to you, you’re probably being too polite.

3) You compliment people constantly

Who doesn’t like to receive a compliment?

Saying something kind about what a person is wearing, the way they look, or something they’ve done is a great way to give them a boost.

And it’s a tactic polite people use to make the people around them happy.

On the other hand, it’s possible to compliment other people too much. And it can backfire.

If you find something nice to say about everyone every time you see them, they will notice this trait. And the more often you compliment them, the less those compliments will mean to them.

At its worst, this polite behavior can make you seem insincere and fake.

4) You don’t accept compliments yourself

It gets even worse when you refuse to accept compliments yourself.

Nobody likes an arrogant person. And if you have low self-esteem, it can be hard to accept compliments that other people give you.

However, while you may think it’s polite to reject other people’s compliments, it’s usually better to accept them graciously.

If, for example, somebody says they like your jacket, don’t reply, “oh, this thing? It’s really old, actually. I’d love to get a new one like yours.”

Instead, just say, “thanks.”

Just as people like receiving compliments, they also like giving them and making other people feel good. Think of a compliment as a gift. It’s not something you should reject.

5) You over-explain

This one is especially prevalent in professional environments, where clear, concise communication is important. But it also spills over into people’s personal lives, too.

Are you constantly explaining? If so, you’re probably being too polite.

While it’s sometimes appropriate to explain yourself, you don’t always have to.

If there’s something you can’t do for someone, a simple no is often enough. If you do need to explain further, keep it short.

Strong boundaries are essential in the workplace and at home, and you should never apologize or feel you need to explain every part of your thought process to make people like you.

6) You never say no

Additionally, people who value manners often think it’s impolite to say no.

This can lead to you doing things you don’t want to do, both at work and in the home.

It’s important to remember that saying no is crucial to preserving and protecting your own boundaries.

It’s not unreasonable to say no to people sometimes, and no reasonable person expects you to always agree with them.

If you never say no, you’re probably being far too polite.

7) You never offer an opinion

Emotionally mature people know that their opinion on every subject is not always needed. We all pick and choose when to share our thoughts based on context, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

However, sometimes, it’s good to get things off your chest.

Disagreeing with others can be unpleasant. But it’s important to remember that your opinions are just as valid as theirs.

This is another polite trait that can sometimes backfire, too. If you never offer an opinion that others may not agree with, it can make you boring to talk to.

Personally, I prefer people who speak their minds, even if I don’t agree, to people who keep it all bottled up inside.

8) You don’t speak up

This is a common trait in the workplace, and it can actually hold you back.

Ever heard the expression the squeaky wheel gets the grease? That’s often true in workplaces. The interesting projects and the promotions often go to those who aren’t afraid to ask for them, or to speak up in meetings.

You may think it’s polite to keep quiet and listen to others. But there’s a time and a place to be quiet, and a time to speak up. If you never ask for more out of life, you almost certainly won’t get it.

9) You often end up doing things you don’t want to do

This point is related to the earlier one about never saying no.

Do you spend your weekends helping people move, cooking for a bake sale, or caring for other people’s pets?

There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But there’s also nothing wrong with saying no from time to time.

If you don’t protect your personal time and space, nobody else will. You may think it’s polite to do what other people ask of you, but you should never let it interfere with living your own life.

10) You lie to spare people’s feelings

We all do this from time to time.

Often, when people ask for your opinion, they don’t really want to know what you think. They want you to tell them they look good or that they did the right thing.

In those situations, there’s nothing wrong with a little bit of dishonesty. There’s no reason to go out of your way to hurt people’s feelings.

However, if you constantly find yourself lying to protect people from a painful truth, you’re probably being far too polite. And this is another strategy that can backfire.

Sooner or later, you’ll get caught out in a lie. And when that happens, people will start not trusting anything you say.

11) You worry about being liked

A lot of the urge to be polite comes down to wanting to be liked.

And, yes, we all want other people to like us.

But you can’t please everyone. And trying often means you end up pleasing no one.

Excessive politeness is often a manifestation of people pleasing. As long as the people that matter most in your life like you, don’t worry too much about what others think.

12) You take on too much at work

Another classic example of over-politeness in the workplace is this one.

If you often find that you have far more work than you can do in the hours you’re given, it could be because you’re taking on too much.

If you’re already doing your job, don’t give in to the pressure to take on new projects. You can still be polite while saying no to some things and retaining healthy boundaries in the workplace.

Don’t be too polite

Like I said at the start, politeness is essential to getting along with one another in the huge societies we humans have built.

But there are several ways in which politeness can also hold you back.

If you have been nodding along to the situations in this list, it’s probably because you’re too polite.

That doesn’t mean you should start being rude. But it does mean you may need to start being a little firmer with the people around you.

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