Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Common Courtesy

There are times when it seems like the phrase “common courtesy” has become an oxymoron. There often does not seem to be anything common about courtesy these days, which is a shame because I do believe that a bit of courtesy could, if not fix, at least reduce many of the problems that we face today. At its base, courtesy is the art of getting along without causing friction, and we could certainly use some getting along without causing friction. The machinery of human interaction seems to be creaking a bit lately, and could definitely use some more lubrication. Courtesy is that lubrication.

In my house, we say “Please” and “Thank you” on a regular basis. If you are requesting something, you say “please.” If you are receiving something, you say “thank you.” It’s that simple, and it applies to everyone, every time. If it’s missed, there is a gentle reminder. This applies equally to the adults as to the children. If I am handing out a chore, I say something like, “Please take out the trash,” and, when that chore is complete, I say, “Thank you.” We practice manners and good example here. We also do not fight in this house. No one yells, and we have very little of the drama that is often associated with having teenagers in the home (very close to none, most of the time). I can’t prove that one is the cause of the other, but I strongly suspect that there is a connection.

Manners are a means of showing respect to another person, and a person who is receiving respect is less likely to respond with disrespect. We all know that is not a perfect correlation - some people are going to be rude no matter what - but it helps. If the situation becomes one that requires a more brusque response, it is easy to change gears in that direction, but changing toward the other direction is not so simple. Think of it as a mountain road, with courtesy at the top of the incline and discourtesy at the bottom. If you start at the top, going down is easy. If you start at the bottom, though, going up requires effort, sometimes even insurmountable effort. It is far easier to begin an encounter with courtesy than to try to get to courtesy after a discourteous beginning.

As Robert Heinlein said, courtesy is the lubrication that keeps this human machinery going. We bump up against each other every day, in almost everything we do. There is friction. There can’t help but be friction. If there gets to be too much friction, things break down. Arguments, conflict, war. These are, from a certain perspective, the inevitable results of an absence of courtesy. The presence of courtesy may not always prevent such issues, but it can certainly reduce their frequency, and maybe even reduce their volatility. The leading cause of conflict is anger, and it is difficult to maintain anger in the midst of polite conversation. It is not impossible, and I have actually known people who become more polite the more angry they get, but anger and courtesy are not easy cohabitants, with courtesy usually being the stronger of the two.

Heather says that I am such a firm advocate of manners because I believe that, if I were to forget my manners, I believe that my mother would appear behind me and give me a Gibbs Smack (funny, we knew those as Mom Smacks long before there was such a character as Leroy Jethro Gibbs). She claims that she has even seen me have a minor lapse and then look over my shoulder with some apprehension. I think if I actually believed such a thing, I might decide to be rude a bit more often. I don’t get to see my mother nearly often enough, and that would be an invitation, no? On a more serious note, though, it does point out that my mother taught me well, and I do give her all credit for that belief and that behavior. The woman who raised me and was still able to maintain polite courtesy on a regular basis deserves a medal.

They say that children have to be taught to hate, and that is true. Unfortunately, children also have to be taught things like courtesy. The natural inclination of the human mind, without any guidance, is somewhere in the middle, not leaning too much toward the positive nor the negative. This would probably be fine, all else being equal, but all else is not equal, and entropy still prevails. It is the natural trend of all systems in this universe to move toward break down, and it is up to us to work against that trend. We must teach our children courtesy so that they can build the world up, rather than watch it break down.

While we are practicing courtesy, we must remember that not everyone will be so inclined, and there is a limit to what we can expect while still remaining courteous ourselves. There is a growing trend in some social circles of demanding that people extend certain courtesies, but courtesy and demand rarely go together any better than courtesy and anger. Think of it like this: If I have two cookies and you have none, it may be courteous of me to share one with you, but would not be courteous of you to demand one. If you understand the distinction then you understand courtesy. Courtesy is about giving, not taking. There are balancing acts that must be achieved, no doubt, but simply demanding courtesy is rarely on the program. If someone is being discourteous, we can politely inform them of such and, if they continue, we can break off contact. I believe that is almost always a better option than issuing demands. Sometimes we can’t break contact, though. There may be any number of reasons that we are required to maintain contact with a discourteous person and, if that is the case, then presenting a demand may be necessary. That might also be a case where traveling downhill on that previously-mentioned mountain road becomes necessary, but we can hope that such situations remain uncommon.

I don’t believe that we can live our full potential by living like hermits isolated on a mountain top. Human beings are social creatures, and we must be social to be fully human. If we’re not learning to be fully human, and to be the best fully human that we can be, then what was the point? If we’re just here to figure out how to not be here as quickly as possible, well, that would be pretty silly. No, I’m convinced that we are here to learn how to BE HERE, and to learn how to make being here be as good as it can possibly be. I also believe that can be pretty good indeed, if we just put our minds to it.

Part of how we do that is by being good to one another. Practice courtesy in everything that you do, and you’ll find that you see the world in a better way. If you are more consistently positive, the world around you becomes more consistently positive. It’s almost like magic. Maybe “please” really is a magic word. Just remember to say “thank you.”

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