The One Personality Trait You Shouldn't Trust

Last Updated Jul 25, 2011 12:09 PM EDT

The One Personality Trait You Should Not TrustWhen I meet a polite person, a red flag warning goes off in my head. I don't trust polite people. In my experience, polite is a façade and, well, who knows what's underneath?

Whether it's a prospective customer, vendor, employee, whatever, I like to know what kind of person I'm dealing with and so should you. It makes good business sense.

No, this isn't some sort of personal problem or pet peeve. And just so you know, I'm not particularly enamored with people who behave rudely or like jerks, either. But that's actually a different issue and something we've dealt with before.

Here's the problem with polite people. Polite is a pretense, a layer between what the world sees and the genuine person beneath. What lurks beneath that layer is essentially an unknown. He might be exactly how he represents himself to be. Then again, he might not. You just don't know.

Look, doing business with people and their companies is hard enough. There are personalities, relationships, negotiations, and dealing with all sorts of issues that come up before, during, and after products change hands or services are performed.

But it helps a lot to know the genuine person you're dealing with. Personal agendas and baggage make things far more difficult. Transparency is a word we throw around a lot these days, but it's more the exception than the rule in actual business relationships.

You see, I've dealt with quite a few overly polite people, over the years. VCs, customers, vendors, employees, peers, executives, you name it. In just about every case, there are surprises down the road. Everything is harder and takes longer than it should. And oftentimes, nothing ends up getting done.

Now, let's be clear. I'm not talking about considerate people. That's a whole different story. According to the dictionary, considerate people are "thoughtful of the rights and feelings of others." To me, considerate is genuine.

Being considerate is like holding the door for people, tipping the waiter appropriately, not talking down to or being dismissive of your employees, treating people with respect because you genuinely respect them, that sort of thing.

On the other hand, the dictionary says polite means "showing correct social usage or marked by an appearance of consideration, tact, deference, or courtesy."

Note the keywords correct and appearance. That's the rub. Considerate people focus on others, on how they feel. Polite people focus on themselves, on how they themselves appear. It's a world of difference.

Here are five warning signs of someone who's putting up a polite façade and may be disingenuous or not as he seems:

  1. Overly concerned with appearances. Worries about what people think of him and everything else, for that matter, to the point where real behavior and deeds take a back seat to appearance and perception.
  2. Doesn't treat everyone the same or with equal respect. Deferential or kowtows to those in power but talks down to perceived underlings. Sucks up to those he wants something from or wants to do business with. Sugarcoats the truth.
  3. Body language doesn't match the words, i.e. doesn't walk the talk. Passive aggressive: says okay to keep things copacetic, then leaves the room and does the opposite, goes behind your back, or doesn't follow through.
  4. Politically correct. It's one thing to make a reasonable effort to not offend people. But watch out for those who seem to spend half their brain cycles - and their interactions with you and others - on political correctness instead of getting things done.
  5. Exceedingly polite in addressing people. Makes a great show of addressing people as Mr., Ms., sir, the lady or gentleman, even in ongoing emails. Speaking of which, I find the whole "kind regards" thing to be mostly disingenuous.
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