Our world today is defined by two extremes: intense hostility on one hand and suffocating politeness on the other.
A few years ago, I worked in federal government in Washington, DC, during a very divided season—not unlike the election year we are about to enter. It was then that I learned there’s a difference between civility and politeness and why it’s more important than ever to recognize the distinction.
Politeness is a technique: It reflects decorum, mores, manners, and etiquette. It is neither good nor bad itself, but it can be used for good or for ill depending on a person’s motivation.
At its best, politeness can help mitigate the awkwardness, discomfort, and annoyance inherent in our social lives—but it will only ever apply surface-level fixes and will never be enough to help us navigate or resolve our most profound and important disagreements.
At its worst, politeness can make our disparities worse by fostering feelings of selfishness, pride, and superiority over others. Politeness can be and has been weaponized to penalize difference, silence dissent, and oppress vulnerable voices and populations.
By contrast, civility is a holistic disposition—one that our society desperately needs today.
Civility is based on the fundamental truth that all human beings are created in God’s image and are therefore worthy of basic respect. It sees everyone as inherently valuable and endowed with essential dignity, invoking a general regard for our neighbors and citizens. Civility is rooted in the mutual deference we owe one another as fellow humans and allows us to consider even our enemies as moral equals.
Yet civility can be at odds with politeness, as it sometimes requires that we act in ways that many might consider impolite.
Jesus himself spoke of the perils of politeness and the dangers of being inordinately focused on a polished outward appearance. He constantly exposed and critiqued the religious hypocrites of his day—those who were smug in their self-righteous compliance with ceremonial customs and religious rituals. He knew their meticulousness was merely a cover for their selfishness.
Christ demonstrated that the act of truth telling isn’t always polite, but it is right and respectful when it speaks the truth in love. He did not hesitate when it came to calling out the duplicity of the Pharisees—who appeared to act well, though their hearts were angry and bitter:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. (Matt. 23:23)
Jesus understood the wickedness of the human heart. He recognized that rule following is an easy way for people to feel self-assured and superior to others. He knew that rules can easily be abused and that a blind application of the law can be counterproductive to true morality. This is why Jesus often approached ethical scenarios contextually—in the spirit rather than the letter of the law.
For example, when Jesus healed a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath—a day where the religious rule required rest—the Pharisees weaponized the rules against him and accused him of breaking the law of the Old Testament. But he responded, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” (Luke 6:9).
And when the Pharisees accused Jesus of breaking the Mosaic Law by not washing before eating, Jesus responded with a quote from Isaiah: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules” (Matt. 15:8–9). He accused them of placing human traditions above divine commands.
Just like the Pharisees, we will always figure out creative ways to follow the rules while still being as selfish as ever. Human rules are easy to follow—they let us avoid the hard work of changing our hearts, which is what God ultimately requires of us.
Christ taught that having the right disposition—a heart posture of genuine compassion and selfless love—matters more than complying with the rules of right conduct (1 Cor. 13). Rule following alone cannot make a person good, and helping others is more important than blindly following the rules (Matt. 9:9–13).
Jesus showed us why being good is more important than seeming good. Likewise, Paul warned Timothy to avoid people who have “a form of godliness” but deny its power (2 Tim. 3:5). The state of our hearts matters far more than our compliance with the societal standards, cultural norms, or even religious rules of our day.
Politeness is empty if it is not backed up with character. After all, Jesus’ own disciple, Judas Iscariot, betrayed him with the polite custom of their day: by giving him a kiss on the cheek.
As Christians, we’re called not only to say and do the right things—but also to do so for the right reasons. It can be tempting to be “nice” and stay silent in the face of injustice, but we are called to a higher standard. It’s easy to avoid the discomfort of confronting someone who has hurt us or others. But in the end, bypassing healthy conflict out of politeness is disrespectful to everyone involved.
Human social life is far too nuanced to be sufficiently reduced to rules of politeness. Only a true civility can help us distinguish when it is appropriate—right, loving, and respectful—to break the rules of propriety in speaking out or acting against the wrongs we witness.
We can’t control how others act, but we can align our motivations with the example Christ set.
Alexandra Hudson is the founder of Civic Renaissance and author of The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves.