Just met someone at a party and they’re a little too nice to you already? Out at a concert or sporting event and someone is being overly polite? You can really get thrown off by someone who is kissing up to you out of the blue. Do they like you that much? Are they trying to tell you something you’re unaware of? Are they trying to get something from you? All of these questions and more can race through your head when you meet someone who is overly polite.

Research that was released in December 2015 shows you might be best taking these people’s behavior with a grain of salt at first. Social politeness and common courtesies are one thing, but if an individual is buttering you up out of nowhere, this could be an unwelcome sign.

The Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Beijing (AMACL) just released their findings that those who are “excessively polite” are considerably more likely to betray peers or comrades than those who are not effusively polite. The researchers at AMACL engaged in an in-depth study of Diplomacy, a strategy-oriented game in which players simulate pre-WWI Europe.

Diving Into Diplomacy

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Instead of having dice, decks of cards or other familiar formalities of gaming, the players rely solely on their communication and social manipulation skills. The game is aptly titled, therefore, as forming alliances diplomatically becomes the true essence of the game. The researchers then attempted to obtain clues of oncoming action based on the dialogues between players.

As it turned out, there emerged rock-solid examples of betrayal that AMACL observed in their report. Perhaps most shockingly, the scientists discovered one of the most predictable signs of imminent backstabbing is sudden changes in conversational tone. Conversations would morph from average or uneventful to contain “patently evident positive sentiment, structured discourse and overt politeness”.

Overly Polite, Sinister Forces

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In one particularly elucidating conversation, Germany and Austria were talking about how to combine forces to eliminate certain threats. Austria readily agreed to Germany’s suggestion to move armed forces east, but then Austria swiftly invaded Germany, throwing their entire conversation out the window and negating trust.

In conjunction with this report, Science News commented that clearly, playing nice and being overly polite is a great war strategy. For those who are not in-the-know and generally unsuspecting, it becomes effective to put on a bright face for everyone and then strike where you desire when people least expect it.

As it turns out, even a computer used this information to accurately predict betrayal 57 percent of the time. This is a surprisingly high rate, especially considering that the only cues to be used are linguistic in nature.

Applying This To The Real World

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As telling and intriguing as this study is, there hasn’t been enough reliable data collected to see these concepts work in the real world. Being overly polite in a game of Diplomacy might only carry benefit as far as recreational, play-oriented boundaries extend. In order to manifest truly viable data to be used in real-life situations, there would have to be a deeper, closer look at regular humans going about their day.

According to Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, a computer scientist at Cornell University, while this study yields valuable information, it should not be used as a sole basis for making decisions about other people. His standpoint is that watching the overall balance of language and behavior in a relationship between two people is a stronger sign of future behavior. Judging if someone’s being overly polite does have its place in making rational judgments for yourself, but it should be taken within the context of the larger relationship.

photo credit: Pinterest

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