Let’s say you are at a social function and you meet someone new. Immediately this person comes off as overly polite, complimentary, and nice.
Our natural reaction is to immediately like this person, but research warns us that overly polite people are more likely to betray us.
To conduct their study, researchers at the Association for Computational Linguistics annual conference in Beijing (AMACL) staged a game they called “Diplomacy”. The participants were broken up into countries simulating Europe before World War I. There are no dice or game pieces of any kind, just the social interactions and communications back and forth between the countries. What researchers found was that as soon as a participant (country) changed their conversational tone, they ended up betraying the other, in 57% of the conversations where someone was being overly nice or polite.
This exchange between characters withing the game illustrates how seemingly nice people betray others.
Germany: “Can I suggest you move your armies east and then I will support you? Then next year you move [there] and dismantle Turkey. I will deal with England and France, you take out Italy.”
Austria: “Sounds like a perfect plan! Happy to follow through. And—thank you, Bruder!”
This is what the two countries said to each other before Austria invaded Germany’s territory, despite that seemingly Austria was on Germany’s side.
What we Learned from “Diplomacy”
Although the participants were simulating a historical situation, the conditions of the game have their roots in human nature. Think about it: when someone is about to screw you over they aren’t mean to you. They are nice to you. Politeness can be a way to disarm us and get us to drop our guards. It is a form of manipulation that we experience every day. So how do we not become jaded to anyone who is nice to us?
One thing that was constant in the betrayals was a change in the conversational tone. One second the teams were suspicious of each other, the next they became quick friends. The same thing can happen in life. If someone who has never really paid much attention to you all of the sudden is extremely nice, your deception radar should be blaring. The same is to be said about someone who has been a known enemy suddenly changing their tune.
The trickiest aspect of detecting over-politeness is when it comes to meeting new people.
You don’t know if they are being too nice, or if this is just how they are. Go with your gut, and ask yourself “what does this person stand to gain from me?”
Now, that doesn’t mean you should be wary of everyone you meet, but just keep in mind: there are people out there who live to feed off of the kindness of others. Let this article serve as a simple reminder: things aren’t always what they seem.