J. P. Gerber, Ph.D.

The Shape of Traits

When “You Go First” Goes Burst

Lessons in the nature of politeness from psychology.

Posted May 23, 2018

“No, you go first”
“No, you go first”
“No, you go, first”
“No, you go, first”

Overinsistent politeness is nearly always comical. Sometimes, it will impede the flow of traffic (as someone living in New England I feel the pain), sometimes you won’t get through the door and sometimes you won’t be able to say how you feel . Did you know, however, that there’s evidence for this effect beyond the anecdotal?

In one study1, males drew pictures of their childhood, a common enough type of art therapy. After a few minutes, in strode a tall, confident man, and the experimenter left. The newcomer proceeded to mock the study, doing things such as calling the participant “Slick” or “Duck”, borrowing their crayons, playing wastepaper basketball instead of drawing, drawing on “Slick’s” paper and criticizing “Slick’s” artwork. The whole thing was a set-up to see whether the participant would react. The people who were being annoyed were from Southern or Northern Illinois, and, perhaps this is news to both of us, the two parts of Illinois roughly reflect the larger North/South cultural divide in the USA. Northerners had the tendency to be unamused throughout the process and to address the problem directly. Southerners, however, tended not to be as annoyed at the beginning or to address the problem. However, as time wore on and the provocations continued, Southerners tended to become much angrier and engaged in more aggressive confrontations. In short, Southerners were more likely to explode than Northerners.

The authors note that, in the South, politeness means not offending others (often because the other could have a gun). They show, with data, that the basic Southern rule of politeness doesn’t always work because it leads to breakdowns in tough situations.  

Sometimes, simple politeness rules don’t work. So, is there a good broader rule for politeness?

Perhaps politeness is a way of regulating & reflecting social distance2. For example, if you were to meet the Queen of England, politeness will require deferring to her status. This approach fails at times because politeness might require us to override social distance. For example, were the Queen to fall down while walking her corgis, we might decide it is most important to help her, not to keep our social distance.

The linguistic approach to politeness3 says language is used to show that we care for others. It might be as simple as being hesitant in a sentence (“I’d like to go see a movie, maybe?”). The only problem with this account is that politeness is not only a spoken matter, actions matter too.

I’ve been taught that a general rule of politeness is to treat others in a way that makes them feel comfortable4. This may involve respecting their distance (see Kesha trying to hug Jerry Seinfeld as an example), but it might just as easily involve getting your hands dirty if your guests start eating with their fingers instead of cutlery.

But here’s a rule: The more general the principle, the harder it is to recognize in practice. It’s easy to appear polite if you follow simple rules but harder to be polite. The politest person in the world may be someone you would never notice as being polite, just someone who makes you feel comfortable.

Next week, we’ll look at how the basic rule I bolded above is largely ignored by personality psychology.


1. Cohen, D., Vandello, J. Puente, S., & Rantilla, A. (1999). “When you call me that, smile!” How norms for politeness, interaction styles, and aggression work together in Southern culture. Social Psychology Quarterly, 62, 257-275.

2. Brown, P. & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3. Locher, M. A. (2013). Politeness in The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics, Wiley-Online Library.

4. Davy, G. C. (1960). The Christian Gentleman. Sydney, Australia: Hodder & Stoughton.