How Being Polite Can Hurt Your Health

When it comes to your health, you can be too nice.


Politeness is great when you're meeting someone for the first time, such as your future father-in-law or your new boss. But when it comes to your health, you can be too nice. We highlight three ways that being polite can jeopardize your health and explain how to make better choices.

You overeat to make a good impression. We tend to mimic our dining companions, with women even imitating each other's eating speed, according to recent research published in PLoS One. In the study, pairs of women tended to take bites of food at about the same time instead of eating at their own pace, with copying happening more often at the beginning of meals versus the end. The study was small and didn't make conclusions about weight, but it's something to ponder. "It is common to unconsciously mimic the eating style of those we are with, particularly if it is someone we're trying to make an impression upon, like a potential client," explains Tom Kersting, a New Jersey-based psychotherapist and author of the 2007 book Losing Weight When Diets Fail. This mimicry can actually help you if your dining partner orders a healthy dish and eats slowly, says Kersting. But if you're with someone who scarfs down food like she'll never eat again, you could unconsciously overeat, too. The fix? Be more mindful. That means taking time to notice the colors, smells, flavors, and textures of your food, chewing slowly, and avoiding distractions. And don't heap lots of unhealthy food on your plate in the first place, since "portion size contributes to total calories," says Joy Dubost, a registered dietitian in Washington, D.C., and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

[See: Stop Emotional Eating With These 5 Tips]

You avoid making firm requests. We're often polite to avoid confrontation, finds 2011 research published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, but sometimes this politeness can be disastrous, especially in high-stakes situations. For instance, if you've been letting your loved ones smoke around you, or weave in and out of traffic with no regard for your neck problems, your too-nice nature could hurt you. "When it comes to your health, never give in because you want to be polite," says Kersting, noting that you shouldn't become a preachy, critical person either. If you find it hard to think of what to say on the fly, try to plan your requests ahead of time, advises Dubost. "Come prepared with suggestions," she says, and bring along healthy foods if you're planning a get-together.

[See: How Your Personality Affects Your Health]

You give in to peer pressure. You really didn't want that third drink—you didn't!—but you downed it after your friends talked you into it. No matter your age, your loved ones can influence your decisions. (Skeptical? Take note of the 2011 Edelman Health Barometer, a global survey on health attitudes and trends. It found that 43 percent of 15,000 respondents in 12 countries believed that after themselves, their friends and family had the greatest impact on their lifestyles.) But you don't have to take on their bad habits. "If you're a vegan and someone offers you a slice of steak, it is OK to say 'no thanks,'" says Kersting. "If the person pressures you and can't respect your choices, then maybe it's time to seek new acquaintances." Of course, if your friends are healthy, you'll likely find it easier to be healthy, too. (Remember our example of mimicry and eating?) "Research findings indicate that there is an association between social support and health-related behaviors. For instance, weight loss may be more successful with the help of a support group," says Dubost. She advises finding an encouraging friend or group to help you to meet your goals. More good news: If you consistently make healthy choices, Kersting says your old friends could eventually follow your good example.

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