The Problem with Being Polite

A Filipino martial arts philosophy that you might notice, but never hear discussed, is the absence of politeness from some parts of the FMA experience. Ask a master about it, and he will never admit that this is true. But observe him, and you will quickly notice that Filipino martial arts teachers are rarely polite or politically correct–especially when it comes to close students as well as opponents. Not only that, but the older a master gets, seemingly the more rude and impolite he may get. And the better he was as a fighter, the more this is true. It is like the old, dangerous masters are the most difficult to get along with because perhaps they have earned the right to be this way.

Which reminds me of a joke, that the four most honest people in the world also happen to be the most rude:

  • small children
  • old people
  • drunks
  • angry people

I think we can all think of examples to validate the above observations!

This will likely become a short series, as I found several factors and variables concerning this subject, so I’d like to tackle them one at a time. The installments will appear in different categories, by the way. This one is being placed in “Techniques and Fighting Strategy”. Hopefully you will find some value in it.

I’ve noticed that many martial artists feel the need to be polite to the point that they are dishonest. Get a group of martial artists together–in person–and quite often they will be very amiable and complimenting to each other. If one of the group shares a martial arts skill or technique, the others might not believe that skill is effective, but not wanting to offend–will approve and withhold his real opinion about it. This is problematic. (I’ll explain why in a few)

Conversely, if you gather martial artists in the virtual world and the same is done–you will find more honesty. Some will say (politely or otherwise) that they may not believe the skill or technique to be effective. Some will say that they once practiced this way, and then explain what they’ve discovered through training and testing. Another group may offer advice on how to improve.

There are benefits to both approaches. On one hand, there is an air of humility among martial artists who are in each other’s presence. This is due to the possibility that one may be asked to actually prove their opinion–and few are willing to prove their martial arts when called on the carpet. There is also the desire to choose one’s battles. Not all opinions need to be stated, especially when you weren’t asked for it. There’s truth in that. On another hand, a martial artist who shares a skill or technique with others might appreciate criticism. As martial artists, very few of us know absolute truth, and feedback from our peers is how we learn and grow. Even if we disagree with the critique, we have the opportunity to solidify our knowledge by testing it on someone who doubts our skill is valid. The more one puts his skills to the test (even if his skill was poor), the more his skills will improve over time. The huge benefit in this is that that skill no one thought useful–the theory that no one believed–can be put to the test so much, that one can modify and tweak, adjust and develop… and before you know it, that strange technique or theory has been perfected and few can defeat it.

I’ll give you an example. For decades, Judo and other grappling arts were taken for granted by many martial artists because striking systems were thought to be more effective in combat. Movies featured it, books were written, heroes were made. And then enter the mixed art match… Grapplers had been studying how strikers fight, learned their weakness, trained the counters… for generations. During this time, strikers all but ignored grappling. When popularity grew for matches between grapplers and strikers–who came out on top of those matches?

Let me say that grapplers won most of those fights, not because grappling is superior–but because grapplers were more prepared to adapt their systems to fight non-grapplers. And it all started when grapplers were honest with themselves and dared to question what strikers were doing. How many of us failed to learn because we were concerned with not offending? How many of us continue to not learn because we take offense at those who dare give an honest opinion of what we are doing–rather than join them in dissecting our skills and seeing if they are right?

Now, here’s where this honesty can really help you.

There is still a thing called tact, and like I said–not all opinions need to be given. You should, however, still learn to criticize and critique martial arts skills you see. Actually, as a fighter, you should always do this. Anytime you watch a fighter train or fight, you would benefit greatly by noting all of his flaws, all of his mistakes. Look at his dropped guard. Look for slight stumbling in his awkward footwork. Look for openings and opportunities to capitalize on mistakes. This should come as natural at looking at a fighter. So when you see even impressive martial artists move–look at his flaws. While others will be awed by his speed, power and grace–you notice his undisciplined guard and ineffective footwork. This is what the champions do, and it explains why they are champions. They don’t always speak their minds, but they study. As a fighter, you should do this so much it becomes second nature. Then when you train, you train to capitalize on those observations and exploit the weaknesses you see. (Remember, seeing the mistake is the easy part; having the skill to destroy is something totally different!)

And I will give you another example. In the 80s and early 90s, “Terrible” Terry Norris was dominating the Welterweight division in boxing. He was a scary fighter to watch. He was blazingly quick, accurate, and powerful. He completely destroyed two fighters that cemented his reputation as a fighter:  John Mugabe and Sugar Ray Leonard. Down the line, however, there was an experienced fighter who was a former champion himself named Simon Brown who was coming off of a loss. He was a good fighter, but nowhere near as exciting and young as Norris–and certainly not seen as skilled as Norris. While boxing was excited about the up and coming Norris, Simon Brown stated that he was good, but he “saw something” that he believed would help him beat Norris. No one was ready for what happened that night; Brown had his number and destroyed him, knocking Norris out in the 4th round. While everyone was so focused on Norris and his speed and power, Brown saw the flaws in Norris’ timing and his guard (namely, his chin that was always open)–and he pushed that button all night.

There were other fighters too:  Felix Trinidad and his lack of mobility; Mike Tyson and his exposed chin; Roy Jones, Jr. and his over-reliance on speed but his lack of a useful jab. Someone saw flaws and trained to capitalize on them. If you, as a fighter, could duplicate this skill–you could destroy anyone. Don’t train in tactics alone. Learn to study fighters-in-motion, and choose the tools to defeat them right there on the spot. Be honest. It’s not impolite to notice flaws and openings; it’s half the battle and it’s what we do as martial artists!

Hopefully you will find this concept useful. Thank you for visiting my blog.

Author: thekuntawman

full time martial arts teacher, full time martial arts philosopher, and full time martial arts critic

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Being Polite”

  1. I saw this first hand within the FMA community. Guro and Masters of different FMA schools gathering and being amiable to each other all the while knowing that one masters “style” is nothing more than “entablado” but the other master or guro will not tell it to the other master’s face because they might be called to prove their point and things might heat up and cause animosity between schools.

  2. This is a great post. As a believer in politeness, I see your points. There are drawbacks if it inhibits one’s ability to actually, effectively critique something, see room for improvement, and to navigate through bullshit.


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