Tuesday, November 8, 2005

The art of politeness

Whoever one is, and wherever one is, one is always in the wrong if one is rude. —Maurice Baring

Politeness is to human nature what warmth is to wax. —Arthur Schopenhauer

Good manners are made up of petty sacrifices. —Ralph Waldo Emerson

Politeness is the art of choosing among one's real thoughts. —Abel Stevens

There can be no defence like elaborate courtesy. —E.V. Lucas

I was about to walk into a busy chain store one Friday evening after work, opening the right-hand door of the double doors, when a herd of college-age people burst through both doors, nearly knocking me and everyone behind me over. They were oblivious to everyone around them and the unspoken assumption that you keep to the right and not take up the whole road, so to speak.

I was very tired after the week and also still recovering from 'flu, so my first cranky thought was, "RUDE, SELF-CENTERED BRATS." And, unconsciously, unaware of what I was doing, I started thinking about how rude young people are nowadays. In other words, at some point in the past few years, I've turned into my parents.

Once aware of what I was doing, I asked myself why I would think that. Why do so many young people seem rude to me, especially lately? Part of it is because some are. Some people in any age group are self-centered and domineering, which can lead to what appears to be rude behavior. It's possible that some young people, not yet quashed by life, exhibit these attitudes to a greater extent than some of their more muted, experienced elders.

In this case, part of it was the herd effect. A group is more likely to exert the power of its numbers, and seldom do middle-aged people gather in groups as the young do.

Some of my perception is based on my expectations. My parents were a generation older than the parents of my peers. This is was a generation that believed in instilling respect and politeness in every child—and also in controlling children. For example, I was taught to call every adult "Mr.," "Mrs.," or "Miss"—even if the person preferred to be called by their first name. This was during the 1960s, when some 25- and 30-year-old parents were dismissive of the old-fashioned "Mom" and "Dad," encouraging their own children to call them by their first names.

When anyone sent me a gift, I was expected to send them a handwritten thank you note promptly, which mean within a week. How often do you receive handwritten thank you notes from five-year-old children?

I also understood that children were to be seen, not heard. This sounds absurdly strict today, but this is an example of what it once meant to be polite. In a way, I skipped a generation, going from one that was very firm in its ideas to the current one, which is quite relaxed in its rules, especially when it comes to children.

Mostly, though, I think it's because of my age. In 44 years, a lot of people have been knowingly and unknowingly rude to me. I've also seen a lot of rude behavior that has made me cringe. I've become painfully aware of the effects of rude behavior, of how it can ruin your day, affect your attitudes, even influence your own behavior. I'm more aware of the benefits of seemingly insignificant little gestures, like holding the door open for someone, even when there's no reason to, and how that can make both giver and recipient feel happy and positive about their fellow travelers. I doubt I noticed such things in my youth, and I'm sure I didn't appreciate them. Now they can make all the difference in how I feel.

I won't be surprised if, in 20 years, that young man who led the herd out both doors finds himself thinking of a passing group of youths, "SELF-CENTERED BRATS." I'd like to think most of us catch on. Sooner or later.

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