Dealing with Authority Figures: A Respectful Attitude Can Save Money

Lady & Policeman from Punch Magazine Aug. 1917

I have been wanting to get around to this topic for some time, and was reminded by Penelope’s recent mentions of speeding violations. Traffic tickets cost money and the resentment for that loss is often directed at the police officer who prescribed it. There are many instances when you may feel that you have been unfairly singled out while millions of speeders go unpunished. But your feelings, when  they are expressed, may get the the opposite result from that which you desire and compound the damage you incur financially and otherwise.

Once, when I was 20 years old, I unintentionally let my car go way too fast while coasting downhill. Because I was on a new, smooth, and wide stretch of highway with no other vehicles in sight, I had no sense of danger or unlawfulness until I approached an intersection and saw a police car half concealed behind some very bushy roadside plants.

This was the first and only time I had ever been pulled over by a policeman, and although I absolutely deserved to be ticketed and fined (because I acknowledge that my behavior was both reckless and inattentive) my encounter with the officer concluded with him giving me a benevolent warning to slow down and wishing me a nice day.

Because I have always been adept at dealing with people in authority, I want to share some tips on how to behave when confronted by someone who is superior to you in age, legal station, or position in a school or business. Even in instances when you feel that a so-called superior is morally and/or intellectually unworthy of that position, it does not benefit yourself to always show it.

But I want to emphasize the fact that submitting to authority does not mean being a pushover. Showing deliberate disrespect will only gratify a person’s desire to punish you and make you feel a disadvantage. By being respectful, you are acting in a manner which promotes the other person’s desire to benefit you and make you happy. This involuntary response to your (hopefully sincere) politeness can have a significant impact on the severity of your punishment or whether you are punished at all.

Some of the factors which persuaded the police officer against giving me a speeding ticket are as follows (in the order encountered).

One: I looked clean and neat

How you look is the first impression you make when someone approaches you. Its effect may last only until you open your mouth or forever. For example, if you first see someone in a stunning outfit and flawlessly groomed, you will still think he or she is good-looking when encountered later in grubby sweat suits, unshaven, or in the middle of a bad hair day. We can’t all look our best 24×7, but having a general habit of being clean and neatly dressed increases your curb appeal (and reduces society’s impulse to demolish you).

A clean appearance shows consideration for the health and comfort of people around you. Clothing that does not stray too far from convention shows you have respect for the ideals and customs of society. These two factors will contribute to persuade someone you are not in the habit of offending others, and do not intentionally do wrong.

On the day of my offense, I was wearing a buttoned up blouse, knee-length skirt and light makeup consisting of pale powder and pink lipstick. I think my benign appearance made the policeman reluctant to be unpleasant towards me. I also saw him glance repeatedly at my dog who was riding with me, and noted the power of a pet (like children) to influence someone for or against you. He saw that my dog was clean, well-mannered, and his breed and appearance (border collie with traditional markings) suggested that I had a conservative personality.

“When constabulary duty’s to be done, to be done, A policeman’s lot is not a happy one, happy one.”– from the  Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert & Sullivan

Two: I said Hello

When you know that someone is coming to give you a fine, it might not come naturally to offer a greeting as if you were pleased to see him. But saying nothing makes you look resentful. Think of the sulky silence of a teenager when being scolded by a parent or teacher. By saying hello, you turn a punitive affair into a social engagement.

When I rolled down the window with a little hello and a half smile, I saw a halt in the stern speech I was about to receive. The officer seemed a little surprised, returned the greeting, and then proceeded in a friendlier fashion.

Remember that cops are human too, and that they may be tense when approaching you because they are used to being met with resentment while doing their job. When you offer a polite greeting, the other party feels obliged to return it. Courtesy creates an obligation of return. But do not appear sycophantic, because authority figures who think you are trying to manipulate them will want to teach you a lesson.

Three: I did not argue

This may have been a little sly, but I gave no indication that I knew why I had been pulled over. I just looked at the officer as if I were curious what he wanted. This allowed him to choose how to bring up the subject and feel in control of the conversation. When he informed me how fast I had been driving, I said “Oh, sorry.” And I did not contradict him or argue on my own behalf. I just indicated that I accepted his ruling and casually apologized for having misbehaved.

The surest way to make a policeman angry is to deny that you were doing what he said you were doing, because you are calling him a liar and that would make anyone angry. If you say that the verdict is unfair (because everyone speeds), you are saying that he is unethical, which is equally offensive. By acknowledging that you were in the wrong, however slight the offense, and though you may have had good reason, you demonstrate that you do not think yourself above the law and the need for discipline is diminished.

I do not mean that we should be dumb sheep in the hands of the law. I am all for standing upon my rights when there is true injustice. But accepting the consequences when you have erred can reduce the cost of present and future incidents.

The Snowball Effect of Good Behavior

A Submissive Attitude from Punch Magazine Sept. 1920

The same principles apply in school or work. My classmates in high school had a tendency to regard teachers as the enemy. This made the teachers eager to punish them, escalating the resentment on both sides over time. In college as well, students who make excuses for late homework or missing classes persuade teachers that they are more than usually deserving of penalties.

On the other hand, by showing respect to authority figures (so long as they retain my good opinion), I have often been pleasantly surprised by receiving sympathy or assistance when I expected to be scolded. I couldn’t help but notice that quite a few teachers could not bring themselves to lower my grades on the rare occasions that I missed classes or turned in homework late. I am aware that any such bias in my favor is not entirely fair and so am careful not to abuse it.

When you respond politely to people in authority, you are more likely to get a positive result from the encounter or at least avoid a disagreeable conflict. This will affect how you feel and behave when dealing with other authority figures you meet afterwards. Now I have met my share of bad authority in persons such as my legal guardian and a few bosses and teachers. In these cases, insubordination is perfectly acceptable so long as it is carried out in a practical manner and does not negatively affect your dealings with honest and respectable persons.

When people think you are a nice and generally responsible person, they feel guilty about doling out fines and punishment. This applies in relationships of five minutes or five years. The key to getting good treatment is having no expectations. Expectations give rise to resentment, whereas people are usually happy to do something nice when they may freely chose to.

Returning to the subject of my traffic violation and pecuniary considerations, the obvious benefit of being polite to a policeman was that I was spared the expense of a fine and increased car insurance rates. But perhaps the lesson learned was more valuable, for I was rewarded for good behavior and inclined to continue in that way.

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5 thoughts on “Dealing with Authority Figures: A Respectful Attitude Can Save Money”

  1. Some great advice. I haven’t been pulled over myself, but every time I’ve been a car that was (3 or 4 times, I think), the driver has done what you recommend. I remember one cop got my friend’s mom in a speed trap (bottom of a very tall hill) and his manner softened when she admitted that she hadn’t braked hard enough and he saw that this was her first offense. He also noted that our seat belts were all on (I was a kid at the time) and told us we were doing a good job. He ended up reducing the ticket to 5mph over the speed limit.

    Amicability and respect makes a huge difference. And I highly doubt that arguing ever really works…makes you feel righteous, perhaps, but you still get the ticket.

    I figure we should save the outrage for standing up to actual injustices.

  2. Great advice. Is it me, or has being polite gone out of vogue these last few years? When I was growing up, there was no other option except being polite. It was during the “leave it to beaver” years. Eddie Haskell was the bad kid back then. Now he’d be the hero of the show!

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