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I am racking my brains for the word that describes the act of feigning politeness to cover your own ass. So, for example, dressing up a denigrating email with "please" and "thank you" so you look professional but really you are intending to put the other person down and hope no one notices if the email is shared with others.

Yes this is passive aggressive, but it is a specific form of that, and I can't think of the word to save my life.

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    I think, in fact, politeness is the act (whether with friend or foe). Not the inner intention.
    – GEdgar
    Sep 22 at 17:17
  • 1
    ironic politeness, yes, fake, no.
    – Lambie
    Sep 22 at 20:12
  • 2
    I think you need to be more specific about what you mean. Professionalism, pragmatism, even politeness would seem to fit with what you've said. Potentially also dissimulation which is a rather technical word
    – user84614
    Sep 23 at 4:17
  • 1
    The closest thing I can come up with is being "Two-Faced". It's tough to call it exactly right for this as an action. It works as an overall feeling of the situation. If that makes sense.
    – MacGyver88
    Sep 23 at 13:25
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    @ed999 that's really not what politeness means. There's no requirement of dishonesty, though that can be the case.
    – barbecue
    2 days ago

8 Answers 8

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Unctuous (adj.) to define the person and unctuousness (n.) to define the fake politeness are good choices. Wiktionary provides a good definition for unctuous:

(by extension, of a person) Profusely polite, especially unpleasantly so and insincerely earnest.

Unctuous comes from Latin unctus 'ointment, act of anointing', participial stem of unguĕre 'to anoint'. It originally means oily; and oily is also used figuratively for someone unctuous. It is related to the idiom buttering someone up: being nice to someone before asking for a favor or delivering bad news etc.

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    While "unctuous" might be the best word from the dictionary, I don't recall ever hearing it and really just now learned it. I am a native American English speaker. I'd simply say the person and action are "not sincere".
    – bobuhito
    2 days ago
  • 1
    True, no-one has ever used this word in real life, but perhaps it's time we do!
    – PatrickT
    yesterday
  • @bobuhito I'm glad I could teach you something new.
    – ermanen
    yesterday
18

Obsequious (adj.) or obsequiousness(n.) literally means acting overly polite, but it often has the connotation of excessive or feigned politeness. Merriam-Webster, "obsequious":

: marked by or exhibiting a fawning attentiveness

One of the example sentences illustrates how obsequious can be used in a context to suggest insincerity:

The obsequious villagers touched their caps but sneered behind her back. — "George Sand," 1980, in V. S. Pritchett: A Man of Letters, 1985

The OED ("obsequious, adj.," def. 2a) also has an example that pairs obsequious with dishonest and other adjectives:

1993 Poets & Writers Sept. 27/1 Most had been alienated by boastful, dishonest, obsequious, cloying and, occasionally, nonexistent letters.

Then this recent news story shares a similar sense that obsequiousness is less sincere or desirable than "unfailingly helpful and polite" (Lopez, Shelley. "Alisa Duke selected as Max Carraway Employee of the Year." FSU News, 22 Sept. 2022, https://news.fsu.edu/news/university-news/2022/09/22/alisa-duke-selected-as-max-carraway-employee-of-the-year/):

“Ms. Duke is unfailingly helpful and polite, without being obsequious,” said Shi-Ling Hsu, the D’Alemberte Professor in the College of Law.

It's not quite the perfect word - someone can be obsequious without putting you down - but it's the word I'd use to describe politeness that felt purely performative but insincere.

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    Mm. Obsequious means (to me, in American English) butt-kissing. Covering your own arse is different than kissing someone else's. Sep 24 at 3:23
  • @TinfoilHat Agreed, obsequiousness indicates insincerity, but not with the intention of being deliberately insulting. It's more about faking subservience to gain benefits from the person and really not about insulting them.
    – barbecue
    2 days ago
  • Sycophancy is very similar: it means trying to advance through blatant flattery. Both it and obsequious mean, to me, excessive and blatant flattery, rather than subtle but insincere cordiality.
    – Davislor
    yesterday
8

Politeness has never been about sincerity; it is quite common for it to be fake. But you seem to be asking about something a little different, specifically:

look professional but really intending to put the other person down and hope no one notices if the email is shared

That's a good question. The word I've used for that is "patronizing".

The dictionary definition is https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/patronizing

If someone is patronizing, they speak or behave toward you in a way that seems friendly, but that shows that they think they are superior to you.

Many definitions treat "patronizing" and "condescending" as equivalent, but I see an important difference in connotation: patronizing is more subtle; outwardly (or to someone else), it has the appearance of being helpful and polite.

https://preply.com/en/question/difference-between-condescending-and-patronizing-41502

a person who is "patronizing" may be more subtle and not as open in their attitude of superiority as a person who is "condescending". As such, "patronizing" may be better used for situations where someone is not immediately clear in regard to their haughty attitude toward another person/other people.

If you want to emphasize the "hope one one notices" aspect, you can say "subtly patronizing".

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    "Insincerity" might be a good word but I personally don't think "patronizing" describes this phenomenon very well
    – user84614
    Sep 23 at 4:15
  • @ermanen: Just a thought: The key word in the sentence is "about," meaning that politeness is primarily about saying and/or doing the right and expected thing, the thing that society expects of a person. Whether sincere, fake, or a mixture of the two, politeness is comprised of expected behavior. I think that is what the answerer means. Sep 23 at 15:35
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    @user84614 You should add 'insincere' as an answer.
    – Mitch
    Sep 23 at 16:14
  • Insincere, as well as the other answers (obsequious, unctuous, etc.) are all variations of politeness. But I don't think the OP is asking about politeness per se; they're more asking about a word for "denigrating" (OP's word) someone politely and subtly. In my opinion, "patronizing" captures that meaning better than the variations of politeness.
    – Richter65
    11 mins ago
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Smarminess is the noun form of the adjective smarmy, which is defined as:

extremely polite or helpful or showing a lot of respect in a way that is annoying or does not seem sincere

  • She was trying to be friendly, but she just seemed smarmy and insincere.
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This behavior is sometimes called "Minnesota nice". As described in this article

We’re known for “Minnesota Nice,” but all that really is thinly-veiled passive-aggressiveness and an aversion to open conflict.

I’ve lived here all my life and traveled around the states, and can say with certainty that Minnesotans are the most passive-aggressive people in the entire United States of America. Very rarely will one ever find themselves in open conflict with someone in public, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a conflict. Most of the time both parties will be smiling and taking the blame all the way through, but doing so in an extremely condescending manner.

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    In the south, they would be saying "Bless your heart" and smiling as they insulted one another.
    – Kirt
    Sep 23 at 19:41
  • A bit too localized for OP, but one of the most accurate answers so far.
    – barbecue
    2 days ago
  • This is a fun one. :-) Partly because it's so niche, but also because it throws an entire state under the bus.
    – Mentalist
    yesterday
3

How about "politesse"? It means something like "formal politeness" and I think it has a connotation close to what you are looking for.

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    Sep 24 at 5:11
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You are attempting to disguise the intent of your writing. There is a hidden message, and the recipient will have to read between the lines to understand the subtext because in writing the message you have a hidden agenda other than what the mail directly says.

dressing up a denigrating email with "please" and "thank you" so you look professional but really you are intending to put the other person down

If what you are doing is insulting the other person in a way that is not 'provable' as an insult, that is a

veiled insult

or

back-handed complement: "A backhanded compliment is also a remark which seems to be a compliment but could also be understood as an insult."

Yes this is passive aggressive,

If you are intending the mail to be more threatening than insulting (but still want to have the appearance of innocence) this is a

veiled threat: "a veiled threat...is not expressed directly or clearly because you do not want your meaning to be too obvious"

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    @Mitch done, thanks
    – Kirt
    Sep 23 at 19:40
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A broad brush-stroke of a word for feigned politeness is hypocrisy, though I think the words suggested by other answerers are better than mine.

  1. The practice of professing beliefs, feelings, or virtues that one does not hold or possess; falseness.
  2. An act or instance of such falseness.

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