Monday, January 11, 2021

Courtesy, Politeness, and Civility


I don't wear a mask because I'm afraid of getting the virus. I'm not even particularly worried about spreading the virus to other people because I'm careful and am tested regularly. No, I wear my mask without complaint because it is the civil thing to do, or as I usually think of it, I'm being polite because I know that some people are afraid. I wear my mask for the same reason I hold doors for people, give up my seat on the bus or say "please" and "thank you." It's courtesy, politeness, civility. It's kindness.

I don't ally myself with those who connect courtesy to the concept of "respect," because that word is too often used as a stand-in for the word "obey." I respect many people, people who have earned my respect, but I don't obey anyone, nor should you and nor should your children (although I'm always ready to agree). No, every act of courtesy is a small act of kindness that says, I see you. I recognize your humanity. It's about, in a small way, placing the needs, or the perceived needs, of another person ahead of your own. Waiting my turn, keeping my voice down in public places, giving way in traffic: I do all of these things at my own expense, not because I'm weak or passive or a sucker, but because they are the polite things to do. I don't expect anything in return for my acts of courtesy, although I know that more often than not, it will be paid forward.

We tend to think of courtesy as a kind of code, and it is, but not like the type found in etiquette manuals with all sorts of arbitrary rights and wrongs. Rather, for me, it is the code from which civil society is written. It says, We are in this together, and every act of civility strengthens our bonds, not to mention, making life just a little more pleasant.

Courtesy, politeness, and civility are not anything we can teach. Children will never learn it through lectures, scolding, punishment, books, or worksheets (yes, there are courtesy worksheets). As with all the most important things, the habit of doing these small kindnesses for friends and strangers alike is learned through experience. If children are treated with courteously by the adults in their lives, when the adults in their lives are civil to them, children, in turn, adopt the habit of considering how their behaviors might impact others, even people who they don't know, and make the small, unilateral self-sacrifices that are the glory of every civil society.

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