Sunday, September 20, 2009

Good Manners, Part Two

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.


  1. I've never understood why it's so hard to hold the door for someone behind you. If I can do it with a 2yo and bags, then those students I see on their cell phones can take 20 seconds to do it as well. I also always offer the person behind me at the grocery to go first if they only have a few things and I have a cart full. Again, I usually have the 2yo, and they insist I go first to get him out of there faster, but I do offer. Ten seconds more of a fussy toddler doesn't bother me any. I've gotten good at ignoring his tantrums.

  2. I LOVE that you LOVE NPR.... I don't get people.... Growing up in the South we just knew to have manners.... I think this all stems from the fact that nobody takes responsibility for anything anymore... If we did it would solve all our problems.... You do something wrong... fix it, say you are sorry, learn from that.... and don't do it again... Also I always try to be polite even with a child in tow...

  3. You're so sweet to do those things. I let people over in traffic, too. I also will notice couples on vacation taking photos of each other and ask if they'd like me to take a picture of both of them. People have done that for me in the past and it really means quite a bit, especially for a young couple who might be on a honeymoon or their first vacation together.

  4. My mom taught us to be polite. We say "please" and "thank you"....we don't start eating till everyone's been served...we don't BLOW OUR NOSES at the table!
    You're so right...what's the big deal about letting someone slip in front of you in line? No-one's time is THAT precious. I'm a huge fan of "paying it forward", simply because it makes me feel good about myself.
    Great post!

  5. Nobody lets anyone out or in where I live. It's totally bizarre - I never thought a country coastal town could be more road-snarling than London, yet somehow it manages it!

  6. Hi Leah,

    Well said on courtesy in general, and traffic courtesy specifically. Let someone pull out! It adds five seconds onto your journey, and you made someone's hour, if not their day. We can always hope that someone will do the same for us, right?

    Tip for being let out in traffic: take your hands off the wheel and show your boredom, not your impatience. Other drivers are bored too, and often show solidarity. I rarely have to wait more than two or three cars.

    Thanks for dropping by my blog!