I can tell by the comments you all (bless you all!) have left that I touched a nerve. Let’s talk a little about what used to be called common courtesy.
This week, courtesy was the topic du jour, jour after jour. I’ll touch on a couple of my favorites.
From Amy Dickinson, who writes a syndicated advice column (replacing the late Ann Landers at the Chicago Tribune when she died), there was a discussion of “What Happened to Civility” on Thursday afternoon’s “Talk of the Nation” on NPR.
After all the obvious things were reiterated about how awful the Big Three events were (to recap: Joe Wilson yelling, “You lie!” at the President, Serena Williams harassing and threatening an official at the U.S. Open, and Kanye West rudely usurping Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the VMA ceremony.) In my estimation, the best point Amy made was about apologies. She cited a letter from one of her readers asking about whether an apology was called for in a certain incident. Amy’s advice? If you ever wonder whether you need to apologize, the answer is yes. Well put.
On “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” (another NPR show) the whole panel had a field day, doing riffs on each and every one of the three rudesters and their shameful behavior. My favorite was Mo Rocca recommending that the three should end up in a current-day “Breakfast Club”, and I believe he had some ideas about them force-feeding tennis balls to each other.
But the finest moment belonged to Ellen Goodman, whose column in the Boston Globe (and nationally-syndicated as well) was titled “Clinging to Civility” this week. She reminded us that as a candidate, President Obama was urged to get tough with Hillary Clinton. “He didn’t and he won.” Then he was advised to ‘duke it out’ with John McCain. “He didn’t and he won.” She notes that in the very speech that was so rudely interrupted, the President said, “I still believe we can replace acrimony with civility.” And he models that behavior. You gotta love that.
Okay, but back to our own everyday lives…
We interact with others all the time. Sometimes in person, sometimes on the phone, and more and more, we interact online. Each encounter has the potential to be positive and uplifting, to be basically a neutral outcome, or to be a bummer. For me, much of that feeling is determined not by the actual end result, but by the way it occurred. As my mother would have said, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” So if the cashier doesn’t say ‘thank you’ when I leave the supermarket, I still paid the same money and left with the same groceries, but it feels different from the times when they say ‘thank you.’
So you can let the post office door slam behind you, although I’m close behind with my arms full of packages to mail, or you can glance over your shoulder and hold the door for me. You can keep driving past my subdivision, bumper-to-bumper, and leave me waiting with my turn signal on, or you can stop and wave me out into the traffic one car ahead of you. You can let me hold the door for you, and not even mumble a thank you, or you can smile and hold the door next time for someone else. There’s that opportunity to ‘pay it forward’, as they say, and maybe we will all go back to the good old random acts of kindness.
I have a few personal favorites. One, when I’m walking into or out of the library, if I see a car pull up to the curb, I’ll walk up to the driver’s window and offer to drop off their books for them. They don’t have to get out of the car, and I feel like I did a good deed. Two, I like to let someone pull into traffic. Not twelve cars, but I can let one or two in… How much later am I going to get where I’m going? Of course, when the other driver doesn’t so much as wave a little thanks, I kind of grimace, but hey—I tried. Three, when someone even older than I am (and there are a few of them left who still go out in public) I try to make sure I get the door for them. I’m not looking for applause; chances are you do all these things, too. Most of us are courteous and thoughtful people who look for ways to be kind and pleasant. Maybe that’s why we notice when others don’t.