Sam Rees-Adams: What does it cost to be pleasant?


There is a school of thought that nice guys finish last. We have all had to deal with people who shout down anyone who disagrees with them in the belief it makes them stronger and more successful. But even if they get something they want in the short term, a reputation for being rude and difficult does not get them very far in the long run.

Courtesy is not about being a pushover. It is about putting your point across as calmly as possible and remaining polite. Relying on facts and avoiding accusations is an effective approach. Simply making the same accusations again and again does not make them true. If it is relevant, it will count the first time. But that is it.

We are emotional beings and it can be difficult to remain courteous, particularly when dealing with someone who affords you no courtesy in return. However, it is important to avoid reacting in anger and making the situation worse. Try to get some distance. Write the email but do not send it straight away. Look back at the draft when you have calmed down and see if you are still happy to send it.

When dealing with a situation in writing, a useful approach is to follow the formula for structuring essays: make a point, explain or expand it and back it up. This discipline can help to control emotion and achieve a rational presentation of the facts.

When it comes to verbal communication, a staggering amount of people seem to think discourtesy is acceptable. If someone is rude, it makes it far less likely you will be inclined to go out of your way to help them, so how could anyone believe this to be the best approach?

Those who work in customer service are trained early on to deal with rude people. Most of them will tell you it is far harder to deal with someone who is polite but persistent. Those people get the result they want far more often than the shouters do.

We live in an age of constant and instant communication. But while this affords enormous benefits it is not without risk. Knee-jerk reactions can cause tempers to flare and issues to escalate very quickly. It is easy, when reading certain posts or watching the latest Twitter spat, to wonder when discourtesy became the medium of choice.

Brevity and a pithy opinion do not have to be synonymous with rudeness, as the most successful users of social media understand. The ability to express considered opinions powerfully, rationally and courteously is an important skill and one we should be very wary of losing.

Do not misunderstand me: by being pleasant, I do not mean false cheerfulness or overfamiliarity. I mean basic courtesy and respect. Courtesy is the most basic treatment everybody has the right to expect.

Someone unable to treat people courteously must surely forfeit their right to be considered a professional. And if being courteous is more likely to achieve a positive outcome, why on earth would you behave otherwise?

Sam Rees-Adams is director of professional standards at the Institute of Financial Planning