How are we to practice courtesy?

The small courtesies sweeten life, the greater, ennoble it (Christian Nevell Bovee)

While driving, did you ever want to switch lanes, but were prevented from doing so by the heavy traffic? How did you feel when someone recognizing your problem slowed down, waved to you, and let you in? Your mounting frustration was instantly transformed into relief and thankfulness, wasn’t it? Later, when you saw someone else in a similar jam, didn’t you also slow down and let them in? You were sharing and spreading the kindness you received from another. How do you suppose the driver you just helped will act? Most likely, they will do likewise. Look at the power we have to sweeten the lives of others!

Sometimes, the seemingly trivial acts we perform are the most important. Courtesy is an example. We refer to it in different ways, such as civility, good manners, good behaviour, good conduct, politeness, decency, respect for others, thoughtfulness, kindness, and consideration. No matter what we call it, courtesy is NOT trivial. Here is how Edmund Burke (1729-1797) describes it, “Manners are of more importance than laws. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.”

Are those words too strong? Not at all. Think about it. Would a considerate person steal? A kind student, bully? A thoughtful person, cheat? A respectful person, murder? No, because manners and morals flow from the same principle: consideration for others. So, as we raise the level of courtesy that is practiced in society, we lower the crime rate! Paul Johnson agrees. For on February 15, 1997 he wrote in New Zealand’s The Spectator, “We tend to think today that good manners and right morals are entirely separate. But the truth is, they are a continuum. Bad manners and high crime rates are all part of the same disease.”

Unfortunately, TV, movies, the media and merchandisers often portray rudeness and aggressiveness as being “in.” Not wanting to be left out and wishing to be “cool,” the young blindly follow the examples espoused by their heroes and heroines. Who can blame them? They don’t know any better. They have yet to learn that rudeness is the imitation of strength practiced by the weak. They don’t understand that polite people are enamored with life while those who are rude are bitter. Our manners, then, are the clothes we wear. It reveals what type of person we are. We need to teach the young by our examples that the strong are kind. The strong reach out and connect with others. They unite, uplift, and improve the world. Those who act kindly ennoble life because they imitate God.

How are we to practice courtesy? There are as many ways as there are moments in a day. Every encounter is an opportunity. Here are some examples.

1. Whenever someone treats you kindly, show your appreciation, express your gratitude, and offer your thanks. For as Seneca taught, “There is as much greatness of mind in acknowledging a good turn, as in doing it.”

2. Scatter the dark clouds of gloom and spread sunshine with your smile. Remember, a smile is a curved line that can straighten many problems.

3. Be as thoughtful as the 82-year-old woman who was more concerned about others than the pain she was in. “I may be in pain,” she said, “but I don’t have to be one.”

4. Recognize the achievements of others, not with shallow flattery, but with sincere and warm praise.

5. Respect the opinions and decisions of others, even if you disagree with them.

6. Here is some good advice in the form of a Persian proverb: “Treat your superior as a father, your equal as a brother, and your inferior as a son.”

7. Be a good friend. Express your good manners with your emotions. When your friends arrive, say, “At last!” And when they leave, say, “So soon?” When you treat your friends kindly, you will be greatly rewarded. St. Basil (329-379) explains how, “He who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love.”

8. Treat others with respect. Treating royalty, political leaders, or movie stars with respect is a common occurrence, but treating beggars, the homeless, and ex-cons with respect is the mark of greatness. It is not only the downtrodden that need respect, it is our children, too. If we don’t already respect them for what they are, how can we help them become more than they are?

9. Act kindly toward others without expecting anything in return. To act in the expectation of a reward cancels out the kindness.

10. Instruct your children. For as R. Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) wrote, “Parents are usually more careful to bestow knowledge on their children rather than virtue, the art of speaking well rather than doing well; but their manners should be of the greatest concern.”

11. Respond to rudeness with kindness. For what better test of good manners is there than politely putting up with bad ones? We become kind by being kind. And when every act we do is a kind one, the world will rejoice.

12. Be gentle in your dealings with others. As someone else wrote, “To find out what others are feeling, don’t prod or poke. If you want play with a turtle, you can’t get it to come out of its shell by prodding and poking it with a stick, you might kill it. Be gentle not harsh, hard or forceful.”

13. Cherish your family and reinforce it with courtesy. Oddly enough, we often treat strangers more politely than we do members of our own family. This has to stop, and we need to implement a policy of “courtesy begins at home.”

14. Never underestimate the power of your small acts of kindness. They are the pebbles which form a solid foundation for our civilization. Without them, society will collapse.

A brief reflection on the world situation clearly reveals that our potential for evil is unlimited. Despite all our frailties, however, we are kind most of the time. That’s what makes humanity so great. But there remains considerable room for improvement, and the responsibility is ours. Instead of striving to be important, which is nice, let’s strive to be nice, which is more important.