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What Happened to Common Courtesy?

January 31, 2011

ThumperWhen I was a young girl, I had an autograph book.  I have no idea whose signatures were in it (no one famous, I can assure you) or what happened to it (likely it was tossed out during a teenaged ‘I’m-too-old-for-that-sort-of-thing’ purge), but I do remember what my mother had inscribed on the inside cover: Throughout life, always remember what Thumper’s daddy said – if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all’ 

Those words have always been one of the guiding principles of my life.  Sometimes it is difficult – for example, if someone says something particularly vile or stupid, it’s awfully tempting to respond in kind, or point out the obvious flaws in their thinking.  Generally this turns out not to be such a good idea, because one thing leads to another and the next thing you know, you’ve gotten into a full blown argument with them (usually over something irrelevant or unimportant in the larger scheme of things) and you’re both saying all kinds of things that aren’t very nice (and no one’s backing down). Better to have kept your mouth shut in the first place (or simply said ‘You are entitled to your opinion, and I to mine’ before walking away or changing the subject). 

Of course, there are also times when you’re tired, feeling out of sorts, or a bit cranky, and you open your mouth and say the first thing that comes to mind – which is usually a reflection of your bad mood – and you end up hurting someone’s feelings, or getting back what you give (cruel and angry words usually beget cruel and angry words right back at ya).  Everyone has these momentary slip ups – when you say something you really shouldn’t (whether or not you ‘mean’ it or ‘believe’ it is not the point – if what you say is hurtful, not helpful, honesty isn’t a factor).  Those occasional lapses – while not entirely forgivable – are understandable, as long as we don’t make being malicious a habit, and we have the good grace to apologize for our verbal gaffes afterwards.

Keep Your Mouth ShutBut the advice Thumper’s father gave him is certainly the best way to keep the peace and maintain solid friendships and comfortable working relationships.  Can’t find something nice to say about/to someone about something? Don’t say nothin’ at all!

Of course, the upshot to this advice is that what you say to other people (i.e., how you treat them) generally has a direct and immediate effect on how they treat you.  If you are polite and friendly, people will generally respond in kind.  Adversely, if you are rude and aloof, that’s how people will react to you.  Makes sense, right?  Then why is it that so many people are so ill-mannered and inconsiderate these days?  And why are they ‘surprised’ when the people they are rude to are discourteous back?  What happened to the idea of ‘common courtesy’?

I make it a habit to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ to anyone I come in contact with – the server in the coffee shop, the cashier at the grocery store, the bookstore clerk, the staff at the dentist’s office, and even the letter carrier who repeatedly delivers the wrong mail to my house.  I purposely wait and hold doors open for people (young, old, in between – makes no never-mind to me), and I even let the person with a half dozen items in their basket go ahead of me in the checkout line when my cart is full.  To me, this is second nature – it’s the way I was raised (and the way I raised my children). What really surprises me is how shocked many of the recipients of my ‘Please and thank you, have a nice day’ approach are when I do these things.

PleaseThe sad fact of the matter is that they are taken aback by my acts of kindness because so few people exhibit these traits anymore.  I watch, horrified, every day as people of all ages and walks of life ignore the tenets of common courtesy – seemingly because they think that they are the only ones who deserve to be waited on, or answered, or served.  They demand this, insist on that, criticize something else (that is often beyond the control of the person they are complaining to).  They don’t ask nicely, they don’t acknowledge what they receive, and they’re often just plain rude when they speak to the various people they interact with during their day. 

Thank YouIt’s as if they think that saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ somehow diminishes them in the eyes of others, and that by acting as they do, they are holding themselves ‘above’ those who serve them.  They’ve forgotten that we are all equal in the eyes of our creator (whoever or whatever you believe that to be), as well as the law.  Regardless of someone’s age, colour, religion, size, shape, or wage-earning status, they are entitled to be treated with exactly the same kind of respect you expect them to show you.  So – BE NICE!

NOTE: improper behaviour sometimes starts with the ‘server’ being the instigator (the clerk in the store yakking on a cell phone, or the waitress who ignores you, the snarly cashier, for example).  There are a couple of things to consider when this happens: 

  1. It takes all kinds – not everyone in the world was raised by people who thought manners were important (or they’ve forgotten what they were taught).  Either ignore the behaviour and walk away, or ask politely to speak to a manager and respectfully express your disappointment with the service.
  2. They are only human – perhaps they’re simply having a bad day (or maybe the last customer was a jerk!)  You don’t have to respond in kind.
  3. Being boorish back is not going to improve the situation – in fact, it is far more likely to escalate it.  Regardless of why someone else might be behaving badly – you don’t have to, too. Take the high road and – who knows? – you might even improve their mood by doing so!

I could list dozens of instances of discourteous behaviour that I’ve witnessed on a daily basis (and I bet you could to).  Sadly, it shows up everywhere (including on most TV shows, and even in the interminable mud-slinging campaigns of our political ‘leaders’).  When it happens, I’d love to be able to (respectfully) point it out and say ‘Enough already’ but it’s doubtful that would help (I’d probably just get the finger and a good tongue-lashing from the perpetrator).

Instead, I’ve taken a more proactive approach. I’ve upped my own anti-rudeness tactics.  I now not only make being polite a habit, I go out of my way to find something nice to say to the people I encounter in my daily activities (with particular attention to those who’ve just been lambasted by some rude lout who apparently believes people who make minimum wage are somehow lesser beings than they are).

Be NiceThe result is really quite astonishing.  I encourage you to try it.  The next time you reach the front of the line at the coffee shop, or the grocery store, or wherever you are, in addition to saying ‘Thank you’, try ‘Have a nice day’.  Or compliment the person serving you on something (the service, their attitude, their smile – whatever might apply).  Resist the urge to rush through the door to wherever you’re going – hold it for the next person.  Let someone (a mother with a cranky child, an elderly couple, the shy-looking kid with the two bags of chips and six-pack of pop) go ahead of you in line at the grocery store.  Acknowledge all the people who do all the ‘menial’ tasks that make your life so much easier or better – the crossing guard at the corner, the bus driver, the garbage man, the mail carrier, the kid who pushes the empty grocery carts back into the store. 

Smile at everyone you meet.  Say ‘Please’ every single time you want or need something from someone, and ‘Thank you’ every single time someone gives you something or does something for you.  And always remember what Thumper’s father told him – because that kind of advice serves each and every one of us throughout out lives, even once we’ve reached … the other side of 55.

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