Courage and courtesy

I’ve had a couple of strange experiences this week. Nothing that would make you wonder if it’s a full moon or something, but strange enough that they’ve stood out. They’re actually related and that’s part of what I find strange.

The first thing happened when I was finishing the last of my Christmas shopping a couple of days ago. I decided I’d get the bus back as it was late and I had a few things to carry. It was fairly busy and a mother and her baby sat in front of me. The baby seemed fascinated by my appearance. Maybe it’s the beard or maybe he thought I was particularly ugly but he just stared at me the whole time. Have you ever had a kid just stare at you? It’s freaky. I didn’t know where to look, so I looked out the window and every now and then glanced back. He didn’t move. I swear this kid could break someone in GuantΓ‘namo.

Anyway, after about ten minutes they started to get off, her balancing several bags and the kid in one arm and trying to pick up the stroller with her other hand. I got up and offered to carry the stroller down for her; she looked stunned that I’d offer. So I carried it down and she thanked me, but still seemed surprised that I’d want to help. I didn’t say anything but as I returned to my seat, I couldn’t help but wonder why she thought it strange that I’d help. Was it something about me that made her think I wasn’t the kind of person who’d notice she needed help? Or was she just surprised that anyone would help? I suppose I’ll never know, but no one else moved, not even the driver… I found that very strange. There were at least thirty other people on the bus and twenty near where she was sitting. Are we really so involved in our own worlds that we wouldn’t think to help a mother who obviously needed it? Or did they all think that someone else would do it? I don’t know which is worse.

The second thing happened a day later. I was out again and on my way to browse in a couple of bookshops to kill some time. A woman and I both reached the escalator at the same time; I had a little more room and probably could have gone first, but I stepped back and let her go. She looked at me with that same look on her face: half-bewilderment, half-smile, like I’d just done something very unexpected. Maybe I had but it’s actually something I do a lot, for men and women. It’s partly because I try to be polite but also because I don’t like getting bumped on the escalators; I’ve lost my balance several times when somebody’s brushed past me, so I find it easier just to let them go first.

It was only a small thing, but again it struck me as strange. Is it really so unusual that someone would do that? Are we so used to forming long queues and yelling at each other on the roads that when someone gives way, it feels unexpected?

Truthfully I wouldn’t have thought much of it, except that two similar things had happened in as many days and now it’s got inside my head. I don’t believe in coincidences and it’s made me wonder if courtesy is slowly dying. Well, not wonder; I know it is. There’s no doubt that people aren’t as polite to each other and when they are, it often feels fake. No doubt that people speak to each other more harshly and are always in a hurry; no doubt that we spend a lot of our time listening to music inside our heads, unaware of what’s going on around us… I just hadn’t realised that it had come so far as to seem strange when someone actually did a kind act. Shouldn’t it be the other way round?

What it’s made me think about as well is courage. I’ve said before that I think it’s much harder to do the right thing, to make a right decision, than it is to do the wrong thing or make a wrong decision. There are many different ways of approaching something; there might be many favourable outcomes, but I would say there are many more unfavourable ones because there are so many obstacles that can get in our way. Sometimes you need to back yourself and go ahead no matter what people say, or do something you know is right when everyone disagrees.

I’m not going to say that anything I did was courageous, but I think you need a bit of courage to perform a kind act. You need not to be afraid that you’ll make a fool out of yourself (always possible) and to believe that you can help. Sometimes you need to swallow your pride and do what has to be done. And sometimes you need to stand up for what you believe in even when it might seem better to stay quiet. How many disadvantaged people have been helped because someone took the time to listen? How many small acts of kindness have changed lives because someone had the courage to say “I want to help”? More than we’ll ever know.

Maybe I’m making a big deal out of two small experiences, but I find it very sad to think that common courtesy is becoming a thing of the past. This isn’t me lamenting the death of society or how inconsiderate people my age are; if anything I think the opposite. I just think that the way we deal with each other says so much for who we are, for who I am as a person. I can go round listening to my iPod quite comfortably and not notice anything outside of it; I bristle when someone says something harsh to me like anyone else, and I can just as easily say something harsh back. Sometimes that’s entirely appropriate. But the way I behave affects other people too; carrying a stroller or letting someone go first is such a small thing, but can make such a difference. Both those women were surprised but pleased; my doing one nice thing for them gave them a good feeling. It would have been easy for me to do neither, and it wouldn’t necessarily have been wrong, but I think the world would be a much colder and sadder place to live in without those small acts of kindness. So I help where I can.

With Christmas so near it’s simple to get caught up in the frenzy and forget about the impact we can have on other people, so I think it’s important that we make the effort to be polite and helpful if we can. It’s not easy with all the noise and music and people, but a kind word or gesture can make all the difference in someone’s day. So my resolution from now until Christmas (and beyond!) is to try and do something nice for someone each day. A stranger, a friend, whoever, I want to show that courtesy isn’t completely dead. Anyone want to join me? πŸ˜‰

14 thoughts on “Courage and courtesy

  1. I agree that modern society is sorely lacking in courtesy. Even Christmas doesn’t manage to change most people anymore. Others do act surprised when courtesy or kindness is directed towards them.

    I tend to perform “random acts of kindness” as often as I can. I even give money, or spend money, when I see that someone would appreciate it more than if I hadn’t. As far as courage goes, I prefer the reward of brightening someone’s day, if only for a moment, than worrying about what a stranger will think for that instant. If anything, I hope that others seeing me do those things will inspire them to act the same way.

    I’m slowly believing in The Golden Rule (“do unto others..”/”treat others as you would like to be treated”) and “what comes around, goes around”.

    CJ: I’ve noticed that about Christmas this year as well. Usually I enjoy the atmosphere but it’s felt very subdued this year, the spirit lacking… if people are feeling that as well, maybe that’s part of why they seem surprised.

    You’re right, we can’t put a price on brightening someone’s day, although I admit sometimes I hesitate because I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing… but the reward of knowing you’ve made a difference outweighs everything else. And who knows, they might even return the favour for someone else and so it comes back around.

    Welcome back, btw. I was just going to stop by your blog to say hi, but you beat me to it! πŸ™‚

  2. Random acts of kindness seems to be a popular topic today. I think you’ve correctly assessed what is happening. It’s the general corosion of society. I’ve had many similar occurences. Folks look bewildered when I hold the door for them, or when I stand up and offer my seat to an old lady. It’s almost like those acts are relic from days of yore.

    It’s quite sad when you think of it. Folks are usually too caught up in self-importance these days. They’ve got their cell phones on via bluetooth technology – they’ve got their blackberries barking crucial information 24/7, and of course their PDAs, IPods, etc., etc.

    In fact, we’ve gotten so far removed from our manners that just as you describe, when someone actually offers an act of kindness, we almost stop with a cynical “what’s his angle?” or “what’s he going to try to do to me?” reaction.

    What we need to do is take back good manners and common decency one person at a time. We just need to drag the others kicking and screaming along with us if they choose not to comply.

    Great post, CJ!

    CJ: Thanks, KS! I think Blog Catalog ran a “bloggers unite” day yesterday, so that might be why there are a few similar posts around… it was a coincidence for me – I didn’t find out about it until later.

    It is sad when you think about what we’re losing… there are so many great things about modern society, but we seem to have sacrificed many of our interactions as a trade-off. I’m a big proponent of technology but I don’t let it rule my life; these days it seems like people can’t be out of contact for even a few minutes. Like when someone’s mobile phone rings at the movies… it’s these small things that people just don’t think of, but they say a lot for what we’re losing.

    I’m hoping we might see a change over time, but the important thing is to just go about it in our lives… if we do it not because we feel we have to, but because we want to, then perhaps slowly people will notice. Then we just have to drag the rest along! πŸ™‚

  3. Courtesy isn’t dying here in the States; it died quite some time ago.

    One of my pet peeves is when I hold a door open for someone who sails on through without so much as a glance, let alone a thank you.

    I always say to them, in my most saccharine voice and only loud enough for them to hear, “You’re welcome.”

    So perhaps that makes me part of the problem but in so many cases, people don’t even know what’s expected re: civil behavior. I think the tipping point is long past.

    CJ: I think you’re probably right, Ella. I’m not sure when the tipping point came and went but it seems like the accepted behaviour now… perhaps people will remember an action more if it seems rare, but when it becomes a part of society, it’s a battle you can’t win.

    I think you restrained yourself quite well, btw. I’ve said (and thought) much worse when that’s happened to me! I’ve had a few come back and tell me they thought I was staff, that they thought it was my job to hold it open… charming. πŸ˜•

  4. i so agree on that courage bit, because that’s what always stops me from helping out when i want to. i keep thinking if i should do it that by the time i decide to there wasn’t a need to help out any more.

    and i guess people mind their business so much these days that it’s just unusual when someone steps up and offer help, no matter how small it is.

    i was at a restaurant with my friends and it was my turn to pay at the counter. the bill came up to some cents. since i didn’t want to get too much small change back, i hollered to my friend to give me the exact change (he was half way across the restaurant, but it was empty, and i’m quite loud when i’m with my friends haha). i was a bit caught by surprise when the lady behind me gave me the change. it was a tiny amount (just 1 cent, haha) but the gesture was worth so much more to me.

    i think in both your cases, at least they were just surprised. there are some people who don’t even give a proper reaction when you offer help; they think you have suspicious behaviour, or worst, don’t even acknowledge your help. being surprised is not exactly an acknowledgement but you can understand it better than if someone were to ignore you totally!

    CJ: You’re right, people do keep to themselves a lot now, so it’s probably natural they’d be surprised… I was quite happy they were, it’s a much better reaction than being suspicious! I guess I’m just old-fashioned as I still don’t see what’s so strange about being helpful. πŸ˜‰

    That’s interesting what happened at the restaurant. Sounds like the right person was there at the right time, and a gesture like that is so valuable. I’ve never had that happen so spontaneously, but I’ve lent bus fairs and people have swapped change for me when I’ve run out… in the end, what does holding onto a few cents mean when a gesture can touch someone so much?

  5. A thought provoking post, as I have come to expect from you. πŸ™‚ It seems to me that since you have examined this issue and decided how you want to be about it, you will find people matching your courtesy with good feelings of their own more and more. In fact I’d be interested in knowing if this is true. The important thing, IMHO, is to look within, and, as you have said, have the courage to do what feels right in that moment. There aren’t universal rules that apply to every situation, in spite of the efforts of etiquette book authors. πŸ˜‰

    CJ: Glad you find the posts thought provoking, Muse! I always think they’re too long. πŸ™‚

    That’s interesting, what you said about people matching good feelings. I have found that to some extent… not so much that it rubs off on them, but they do seem to pay it forward, or feel better about themselves. With a few I’ve had the opposite; they’ve either ignored it or been suspicious, which is disheartening. But you can’t win every battle.

    I know a few etiquette authors who might not be happy about that! πŸ˜‰ But like anything in life, it’s about valuing the moment and not being afraid to act when the opportunity arises… I try to live that way every day, and I think on the whole it’s worked for me. πŸ™‚

  6. CJ u have done very good gestures that people should remember as to pay it forward…If people were paying it forward more often it wouldn’t feel so strange to do and/or receive kind acts…Every time I receive help I am always thankful for it and try not to take it as granted and remember, CJ, just go with feeling and what goes around comes around…So, if you are nice to people then ur’ll attract the meme….

    Cheers Mate!!….

    CJ: I think what interested me so much, CV, was I wasn’t trying to do anything; it just seemed natural in the moment. So their surprise caught me off-guard, but I do understand it… and I hope it made a small difference for them. If they passed that on, that would be wonderful.

    I love the pay it forward concept, btw. I first came across it with Catherine Hyde’s novel and I love that for every good deed you receive, you’d perform three for others. It’s a great way for the circle to continue… what goes around comes around, as you say. πŸ™‚

    Cheers, CV, right back at ya! πŸ˜€

  7. This is so true. People aren’t very polite or courteous nowadays. At least the people you helped were only puzzled and grateful; One time a guy asked me “What the f**k are you doing?” in complete disbelief because I held a door open for him. That kind of attitude doesn’t exactly encourage courtesy, I can tell you.

    I don’t mind holding the door open for people, or letting people go first, or helping people who are in trouble, though. If they aren’t grateful, or don’t acknowledge me, that’s their problem, you know what I mean? You don’t really expect people to be in awe of your manners or anything like that, it’s just saddening that it’s so unusual in the first place.

    I think it really does take courage to help people sometimes, and I’m afraid I sometimes feel too shy to offer help to strangers (precisely because people will sometimes act like you’re doing something suspicious or weird). So I try to be nice to everyone, which seems to me to be a good philosophy for life.

    CJ: Wow, I’ve had people ignore me, but I’ve never had someone say that to me. I’d have let the door swing shut in his face. πŸ˜‰

    My attitude is quite similar to yours, I think. I don’t expect people to say thanks (it’s just nice when they do), and you’re right, if they just ignore it, that’s their problem. It’s this reaction of surprise that caught me off-guard. I didn’t think we’d come so far that an act of kindness would start to seem strange… but perhaps that makes it more memorable too.

    I always hesitate a little before I help someone, partly because I want to be sure they need it and I don’t seem foolish. But there’s more to be gained by helping, so I try to push the feeling down. In the end it’s about treating people with respect, and that’s a great philosophy for life. πŸ™‚

  8. “Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.” – Roosevelt

    It is no small feat to continually treat others with the outmost respect and dignity for the very reasons you mention. We have far more distractions today than before, however, I believe the good will exist today as it did yesterday. There is goodness in us all and the effort is in showing it everyday despite our tribes and tribulations.

    Your blog invites me to do this and is wonderful to see that despite the battles lost your spirit remains.

    I know I am guilty of rushing through and fail to do something that would unequivacly upset someonelse. However, as Muse mentioned, looking inside and changing makes a difference, whilst it takes courage. Criticising those that are unable to do this brings separation, embracing them brings hope but as you and EllaElla found, it takes an effort.


    CJ: Thanks, Whole. That’s a brilliant quote by Roosevelt and sums up everything I was trying to say perfectly. It’s difficult to treat people with courtesy when time and again it’s ignored or thrown back in your face; when you feel like there’s no point and the respect isn’t being returned, it’s hard to find motivation to keep treating people the right way.

    But I find it’s a part of my nature and so it’s not a great effort for me to want to show someone respect; it might be ignored and that can annoy me, but their reaction doesn’t change my gesture… it makes it that bit harder, but who said doing a good deed was meant to be easy?

    Thanks for the compliment, and for stopping by. πŸ™‚

  9. I too have noticed that people seem to be surprised when I do something nice like holding a door and letting them go through ahead of me, or helping a woman get a large bag of dog food into her grocery cart. To me, those acts are simple, automatic acts that I just do. I don’t think about them, there is no debate within.

    Thanks for posting this CJ.

    CJ: That’s how I think about it as well. If you have to think about a kind act, wonder if it’s the right thing, it’s not for the right reasons… if it’s something that feels natural, that’s what people respond to more, and maybe that’s what they’re surprised by… I do hesitate sometimes, but I try not to let it stop me.

    Thanks for the comment, and for stopping by. πŸ™‚

  10. I think you restrained yourself quite well, btw. I’ve said (and thought) much worse when that’s happened to me! I’ve had a few come back and tell me they thought I was staff, that they thought it was my job to hold it open… charming.

    You’re so sweet. Is your middle name Doormat? πŸ™‚

    Happy New Year. It’s been a pleasure to make your acquaintance this year.

    CJ: It does feel like that sometimes! But I give as good as I get. That’s the one advantage of having a good vocabulary – I can insult someone and have them take it as a compliment! πŸ™‚

    Season’s greetings to you too, Ella. Many happy returns for the new year.

  11. Very thought provoking post! Maybe it depends on whereabouts one is, the environment maybe, as to what one can likely expect more of.

    For example for an elevator, it’s rare that I see a gentleman walk ahead of a woman, a man most always steps aside and holds the door open as the ladies walk through, then he (and any other men waiting) follow. The elevator I use the most is at work however, and this is my most experience with elevators!

    Now under the umbrella of anoniminity, I can share with you a short version of a similar story I’ve not shared before.

    There was a foreign woman in the parking lot of a grocery store who could speak very little english, asking for $ for food. I noticed some people give her some spare change, etc. I approached her, and motioned her to a cart, gently put my arm around her shoulder and encouraged her into the grocery store with me. Communication was mostly like this, since we couldn’t speak the same language. Together we shopped, and filled her shopping cart with groceries. I taught her the difference between hair spray and deodorant, both being written in English, she didn’t understand. It made her laugh, she had been using hair spray for deodorant! I paid for all of her groceries, and took her home, where I learned she had a family, with children. That was a good day. I had forgotten this, it was some time ago. Thank you for bringing it to mind.

    CJ: Hm, I hadn’t thought of it like that. Your elevator example makes a lot of sense; it’s a behaviour people have learned, so it feels natural to them. The same’s true of people walking on the street; it’s natural to walk on the left (at least in Aus) and I don’t see many people walking on the right, even in crowds.

    One thing that’s true, though, is it’s a professional environment, so it might be more natural to exhibit that kind of courtesy between colleagues… if I’m out shopping and I try to get to the elevator, often it’s more of a crush. Not even trolleys and prams are given preference… but that might just be my experience. πŸ˜‰

    And thanks for sharing your story. That’s beautiful and I can’t imagine many people would have done the same in your position. I’m sure it meant the world to her, your compassion and your company. Happy Holidays, dissfunktional, and thanks for stopping by. πŸ™‚

  12. Thank you for your post. I came across it by chance when searching for something else and was so captivated by the brief line I could see that I had to read the entire post.

    You made me think, and then rethink, and then share with my family. It is about courage (and I can’t even tell you how many times I have not acted because I was embarrassed to be the one to stand out), but I also think it’s about thinking outside ourselves.

    We must have the ability to, and the understanding of, examining the effects of our lives and actions on others. I think THAT is what we have lost. Not just courtesy – because surely that is an effect and not the cause. We act toward others when we are aware of the impact of our actions on their behaviors and attitudes. The way we act is determined by what shapes us – but I still believe that if more were able to truly see what effects holding a door open, saying thank you, stepping outside have on others then more would do it.

    We unfortunately have a couple of generations now that have lost that somehow. I don’t know if it’s because we live in instant gratification, or if it’s something that isn’t taught somewhere anymore, but we don’t recognize the worth and the value of our own actions to influence, well, anything.

    What happens when a courtesy is performed? You have first placed value upon yourself – that you can DO something that will affect your environment and others. You also place value upon others – that they ARE worth you doing that thing. And I believe that would startle people – knowing that they have an inherent worth to you that isn’t based on anything other than their existence.

    We must regain that ability and the courage and the courtesy will follow. I don’t know if I could change the course of the nation but I do believe that my singular actions affect the world around me. And I know I’ve changed at least one small part because I watched my 13 1/2 yr old daughter rush to get ahead of an elderly female entering a store – just to be able to pull open the door for her.

    At that moment, I was completely aware and very proud.

    So thank you, again, for your words and your thoughts. For calling attention to what we can be – with just a little more courage.

    CJ: Thank you so much for your comment. I think what you said about the ability to think outside ourselves is very true. Many people can’t seem to make the connection between how we treat other people and the knock-on effect that can have. And they don’t seem aware of what it says about themselves either. If we placed more value in our attitudes and actions, it might make us we more aware of how others see us and we’d learn something about ourselves.

    But that’s part of the problem, we don’t want to face that about ourselves. We’re conditioned to stick to routine and not to make waves; it’s a natural impulse to think that someone else will do something, and so we don’t bother… we have more “important” things to do. We’ve lost our independence to some degree, the idea that we can make a difference on our own; I think that’s where a lot of the problems come from.

    Our willingness to act (or not act) really says a lot about who we are. If you look at an act of kindness, it says that for a moment there’s nothing more “important” to us than helping someone else; it doesn’t matter where we are or what we’re doing, for that moment we choose to make a difference to someone else. We can’t know how they will react, but the gesture means we think that we have worth, that we can help, and that they are worth helping. As you said, if people understood that it would change so much – we’d be a true society, not just a collection of individuals.

    But there’s still a lot of courage needed in that… it’s a scary thing to put yourself out there, knowing you might be embarrassed, or that you might not be able to help. Perhaps that’s what we’ve lost more than anything else, the thick skin we used to have… but change is possible – your daughter proves that! And what a wonderful thing she did too. πŸ˜‰

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I’m always surprised but gratified when people find my blog off searches and your comment really makes me think that we can make a difference… even if it’s just one person at a time. Thanks again, and Happy New Year. πŸ™‚

  13. Beautiful post, and I relate to your wondering where kindness has gone. Respect is becoming an archaic word in this century…unfortunately. Fortunately, there are people like yourself who are not afraid to express the more authentic and kind aspects of our humanness. πŸ™‚

    CJ: Respect’s such an important part of society that it’s very sad to see it being forgotten now… I still find it strange that a courteous act can seem so unexpected, but I’ll always try to show respect… I guess I’m just stubborn that way. πŸ˜‰

    Thanks for stopping by, Kalliope, and for the compliment. πŸ™‚

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