Courtesy (noun) 1.excellence of manners or social conduct; polite behavior. 2. courteous, respectful, or considerate act or expression.
--Random House Dictionary
“He who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love”
I had coffee last week with a good friend who’s been unemployed now for two years. There are lots of tough things about being out of work. Loss of income. Loss of identity. Loss of self-esteem as an unemployed person wonders if their inability to find work is a societal judgment on their worth as a human being. But in talking with folks actively job searching—sending out endless resumes, surfing job websites, making so many phone calls—what’s struck me most about their plight is this most unkind cut of all. The wholesale absence of courtesy or kindness or even basic human manners in that scramble to find a job.
So here’s the norm these days. A person interviews, all full of hope and anticipation. Best suit. Polished resume. They follow up with a carefully thought out “thank you” email or a gracious phone call and then….well…most of the time, they hear back little or nothing. For days, weeks, even months, as if their interview fell into a black hole of corporate mystery. “We’ll get back to you” is always promised but often forgotten. Speak to the people in your life who are out of work and they’ll tell you this: that human courtesy seems to have completely gone out of the job search. Maybe even in the rest daily life too.
It can feel at times like our world is pretty rude these days, pretty sharp. Just last week sports “hero” and LA Laker Kobe Bryant ripped into a referee with a hateful homophobic insult, caught on live national TV. Politicians rip apart their political enemies in public, civility be damned. A youth on an MBTA bus in Boston beats the driver senseless when that poor soul had the gall to ask that thug to put out his cigarette. It’s little things too. Standing in line at Starbucks while folks around us gab away on cell phones, oblivious to the public space they share with others. Standing in the middle of a big box hardware store, lost among all that stuff and praying that just one employee might actually walk up to us and say, “Can I help you?”
But when courtesy happens: there is something so gracious in basic human kindness, civility. Someone holds a door for us or offers to help with a heavy package. A driver lets us pull out into a packed roadway. We get a handwritten “thank you” note from someone. A stranger holds an elevator door as we rush to make an appointment. A sports star takes the time to say hello to a little kid who’s waited hours for an autograph. Courtesy is like a cool drink on a hot day. It refreshes. It makes us smile. It reminds us we need to be kind too.
Not sure why courtesy seems to be waning in the world. Many will claim busyness as an excuse for discourtesy, me included. Just too busy to return a phone call. Too busy to slow down for a stranger in need. Too busy at work to follow up with that enthusiastic woman I interviewed last week. Some claim that in this increasingly hard world, courtesy is a sign of weakness. Only the sharp elbowed get ahead and win the game.
Yet human courtesy really all boils down to one choice. We can either see the world as “I” centered or as “we” centered, as all about “me” or all about “us”. Courteous folks remember that “I” am not the center of the world. That what “I” am doing at any given moment is not more important than every one else around me. That instead we share this world with lots of other people, and if we are to get along, some times all a given social interaction needs is just simple human kindness. Manners, as our Moms might remind us. Think of how great we can make another person's day merely by being polite. By smiling and saying, “Thank you.” By going out of our way to be helpful. By slowing down and recognizing a stranger as a fellow human being, someone just as worthy of respect and care as we are. God has made for one another, not merely for ourselves alone. When we are courteous we affirm this basic spiritual truth.
As the poet Henry Burton wrote, “Have you had a kindness shown? Pass it on; 'Twas not given for thee alone, Pass it on; Let it travel down the years, Let it wipe another's tears, 'Til in Heaven the deed appears -Pass it on.” Courtesy. Let’s make our Moms proud!