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How Being Impolite Makes You More Productive

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Social Conventions and Productivity

What is socially acceptable is not always productive. A lot of the time, the amount of concentration and focus that we put into fitting in and belonging, reduces our effectiveness and productivity at doing things, and slows us down.

Going to America

Going to America

Towards the end of last year I visited Thanh in the US, where we filmed the Productivity Blueprint. While I was there, I started to take notes about how efficiency and productivity worked differently in America – after all, America is still considered the entrepreneurial superpower in the world.

One of the examples that I wrote down I remember vividly – people would go to the gym in their gym clothes, then go home in their gym clothes (now sweaty) and then shower and change at home.

Now some people reading this are wondering “what’s so strange about that?”

But contrast that with what I experience weekly in Bangkok, or for the couple of weeks that I was in Tokyo last year. In both these cities, people would not be caught DEAD looking like they had just come back from the gym. In fact, the change room at most gyms here are full of men meticulously blow-drying and applying wax to their hair, shaving or otherwise grooming themselves before dressing up to leave, looking like they’re ready for a night out on the town. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone wear gym clothes out on public transit here.

Note: I have no idea what level of grooming takes place in the ladies’ change room, but I imagine it’s much the same.

Going back to America, you’ll also often notice people dressed in semi-pajamas or what I like to call “mess clothes” – i.e., the clothes you throw on when you’re relaxing at home and don’t really care all that much what you look like. And I’m talking about Whole Foods in a hip area of LA here. Contrast that with Tokyo – you’ll see men decked out in full business suits complete with neckties, bowties, overcoats and cufflinks. Almost every woman you see is wearing full makeup, high heels and evening dresses – and this is at the supermarket. Typically these places, you can spot the locals from the tourists very quickly – tourists look like they just came out of the jungles, while locals are dressed to the nines.

All this got me thinking – is one of the reasons that America creates more productive output than a lot of other places, because people genuinely don’t care as much about social conventions and what other people think of them? I suspect it is – people just do their own thing, get on with it, produce great results and let the work speak for itself. Whether that work is done in a business suit and hand-crafted wingtips or boxer shorts and a t-shirt doesn’t seem to matter.

More Examples and Applications

Sleeping on Train in Tokyo

So I suppose the takeaway from that little story is that dress in what you need to to get the job done, and then focus on the results, not how you look.

But what if we went beyond that?

In visiting different places, I’ve seen various ways that various cultures handle certain situations. I discovered that in Tokyo, sleeping on trains is really common – and a good way to catch a power nap on the long ride home. Here are some other common ones I’ve seen.

Ending Phone Conversations

Phone conversations can take a long time. One thing I noticed with talking with Japanese expats in Southeast Asia was that once they had made their point on the phone, they would just hang up. No goodbye, no courtesies, just hi, talk business, then click, end of conversation.

If you contrast that with Anglo cultures or say Thai culture where people like to talk on-and-on-and-on for hours… it is far more productive, especially when talking business. But you still may want to say goodbye before hanging up.

Telling Distractions to Hold

Here’s a common workplace scenario. You’re busy coding/writing/analyzing something. And you’re 80% done. Then a colleague walks up to you and says, “Hey Aaron, you got a minute?” and BOOM you lose your spot and you have to start back over at 40%.

The productive thing to do in this situation is to hold up your hand and say, “Hold on a sec, let me finish this and I’ll be right with you” – and then finish your task at hand first. I saw this tactic used a lot in Australia and in the US, not so much in Asian countries where it would be considered rude or impolite to do so.

Interrupting People

I’m a pretty polite person. I wait in line and if I walk into a busy shop I’ll usually just hang around for a bit until a busy store attendant becomes available to help me out.

But I quickly discovered in Asia that if you do that… they’ll just let you wait. In fact, most of the time, store attendants in Asia will be too busy playing Candy Crush on their phone to pay any attention to customers… or even to ring up customers at the register.

Random Story: The last time Thanh visited Thailand, I told him that most likely all the Thai customs officers would be busy playing/texting on their phones and wouldn’t check any passengers coming in. I was right.

In these cases, it’s more productive to interrupt people. They may not like you for cutting into the middle of their Candy Crush game… but then you don’t have to wait 10 minutes for them to finish it either.

What is Socially Acceptable is Not Always Productive

The point is this – sometimes if we want to be productive, we have to mute the little voice inside our head that cares about what other people think about what we’re doing, and just go out and do what we need to do.

In reality, most people aren’t paying attention to how you’re dressed, or what you’re doing. People don’t really stare and leer at others. And with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, most people are too busy playing games on their phone, or talking with friends on Whatsapp to pay any attention to what’s going on around them anyway.

Walking a Fine Line

Walking the Fine Line

While this is a great idea, practicing requires walking the fine line between courtesy and increased productivity.

We want to be assertive, but not rude. Presentable, but not ostentatious. Eccentric, but not socially inept.

I personally believe that there is some degree of pride and self-respect is appearing presentable and taking care of yourself – but there’s no need to spend 2 hours dressing up just to go out and get some milk.

And courtesy is still the golden rule. Don’t cut in lines, don’t push other people around, and ask for things politely.

It baffles me that people in Asia will spend 2 hours getting ready to go out, or spend hours playing LINE Rangers on their phone… but then they see a line or queue and MUST push in to get to the front of it first – this makes no sense whatsoever.

That being said, wherever possible, take shortcuts to do things more efficiently and more productively.

Our main teamwork value at Asian Efficiency is the idea of No Heroes. And part of what makes up that core value is the letting others save face, which is part of being courteous. So if you need to, cut other people off an get to the point – but do it in a way that doesn’t embarrass them.

I’ve found that starting with, “Hey sorry, but…” usually works – people find it hard to lose face when you start an interruption with an apology, even if it’s a minor one.

Closing Thoughts

I’m sure that you have a different perspective on where the fine line between getting things done effectively, and being socially courteous and following social conventions is – and I’d love to hear it. Let me know in the comments!

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Posted by Bart  | June 19, 2014 at 7:50AM | Reply

Recently I have wondered about smartphone etiquette as I learn to be more productive. OneNote notetaking may be perceived as texting during a meeting. I know I worry about what others think too much, but it is overkill to start out by saying, “Hey, I just want to make some notes in my phone so I’ll remember what we discussed.” Or is it?

Posted by Kosio Angelov  | May 15, 2014 at 9:07PM | Reply

It’s quite ironic that I read this post after coming back all sweaty and American-looking from the gym :) Some very good points, Aaron.

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | May 23, 2014 at 9:11PM

Cheers Kosio!

Posted by Steve Spring  | May 13, 2014 at 9:00AM | Reply

Great Post! I never really thought about this before, but being polite really can make us less productive. I agree with you that there is a fine line between being productive and being a jerk. So, I think that we need to learn how to say “no” politely to improve our productivity. Thanks for sharing Aaron!

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | May 23, 2014 at 9:11PM

Thanks Steve!

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