Show a little respect

I went shopping in the sales the other day. It was murder. They’d already been on for a week but the crowds were worse than before Christmas. I’m not a good shopper at the best of times but the sales bring out the worst in me; I wander off and end up buying things I know I don’t need. And my cursing the queues doesn’t make me much fun to shop with. Maybe it’s just that I’m a guy and can think of a dozen ways I’d rather spend a Saturday afternoon, but looking through Myer with thousands of people just doesn’t appeal to me.

But I needed a couple of new shirts, so off I went. And soon regretted it. As soon as I was in Myer the sales people started coming over, wanting to know if they could “help”. Well, I don’t know if they could have helped or not, because they didn’t give me enough time to work out what I wanted. “Do you want to try that on?” Try what on? I wasn’t holding anything! When people bother you that much I think they’re not concerned with “helping” you as much as wanting to make sure you’re not shoplifting. Why don’t they go judge some other book by its cover. 😕

Anyway, it must be Murphy’s Law or something because nothing went right. One reason I went up was to return a shirt from before Christmas; that went fine, and I finally found a couple of shirts that fitted properly. Then I didn’t think about it again until I got back home and started unpacking. And found they’d put the shirt I’d returned back in with the others! It felt like Groundhog Day. How do you do that? They’re separate transactions; the first thing you do is put it in the returns chute. No big deal, though; I’d just find the receipt to prove I’d returned it and take it back when I went up next.

Except they didn’t give me the frelling return receipt. Suddenly I was having visions of doing the right thing and taking it back – only to be arrested for shoplifting. It would be so typical. So I did the sensible thing and called Myer. Luckily there was no problem, but their response surprised me. They accepted my word for it and didn’t even check their records. If anything they seemed stunned that someone would go out of their way to help. Most people don’t apologise for mistakes in case they’re sued, but they apologised five times in two minutes – a record for me.

I took it back earlier and again had that same reaction. It reminded me of when I helped someone with her pram a couple of weeks ago, that same unexpected but grateful look. It seems strange that such a small thing might be appreciated so much, but in a way it makes sense. Standing somewhere for hours at a time, making the same sales and returns, taking the same abuse, must be tiring. Perhaps coming across someone who isn’t complaining and is just trying to help is noticeably different; perhaps they’re so used to people keeping things after a mistake that someone returning it seems unusual. Either way, it was better than I was expecting.

It’s funny the places we find respect, isn’t it? I remember when I was studying that respect seemed quite common; respect between students, between teachers and students. It seemed like a natural thing to be respectful and something I thought would be true later, but respect is something we seem to be losing in society now. It’s the same as showing people common courtesy; it’s become unexpected and stands out when it happens. Strangely respect has become less important in the workplace. Between colleagues it’s there but people work hard and if something isn’t their duty, it’s not their place to do it; that’s not necessarily wrong, but it says a lot for how aware they are of what’s happening outside of their environment. A handyman is expected to do his work because he’s being paid for it; there’s no need to pay him respect as well and say thanks, nor for the handyman to pay you respect and clean up after himself. Someone can choose to smoke while they’re waiting for a bus to work, but it’s not their place to show respect and stand back so everyone else doesn’t breathe it in; we can always move, after all. It’s that kind of attitude that, in my opinion, is why respect and courtesy are becoming rarer.

It’s sad that they are. Our interactions say so much for who we are as individuals and as a society; paying someone respect can change the way they feel about themselves, and others, and who knows what difference that might make in their lives? Just as important, I think, is showing respect between cultures. It’s always been important that we learn about other cultures so that we can appreciate both their uniqueness and their similarities, but perhaps it’s even more important now that the ‘net has made the world so much smaller. We’re interacting more regularly, both through personal relations and through governments, and if we don’t show respect and a willingness to learn about each other, there’s always the risk of a misunderstanding.

What’s interesting, though, is that there’s a time to be respectful and a time not to be. We can go so far in the other direction that our interactions can become stilted and formal, which is just as bad as then respect means nothing. And likewise, sometimes you need to be brutally honest with a person or to be rude to convey a greater message. I’ve received some of the most wonderful feedback from people like Greg Bear and Jodi Picoult, and several amicable rejection letters. But the ones that have really made a difference to me are the most brutal rejections I’ve received. Some of them said horrible things, particularly to a sixteen year old who was just learning to write; some of them literally tore me to shreds and compared me as being much “less of a writer” than writers I’d never dream of emulating. But after a day or two I stopped being angry and read through them again, and I actually learnt a lot from them, particularly regarding presentation and the weaker parts of my writing style. I made largely cosmetic changes to those stories and most were subsequently published, if in smaller markets. They were lessons I had to learn and while I’d rather have had a different messenger, I doubt I would have learnt as much. Sometimes being respectful isn’t always the best option, if it hides the truth.

But in most cases I believe showing people respect and courtesy says so much about who we are, who I am, that I try to make a difference where I can. I think showing someone a small kindness is priceless and can mean so much to them… that’s why I was stunned to see what happened to timethief. I don’t want to go too much into what happened again as there are other accounts, but TT was the most active volunteer in the WordPress forums; she has helped countless thousands of bloggers on WordPress, but has now been rendered inactive. The WordPress staff paid her little respect for her service; disrespecting her and options in public, then being made inactive and for days every comment timethief made on blogs started going to Akismet. I never imagined TT’s volunteering would end like this, and much as I have defended and recommended WordPress in the past I’m angry about this. It’s no way to treat your users and it’s damaged the community around WordPress, which is its greatest strength.

To timethief, thank you for your time volunteering, and for helping me and many others when we first arrived. I’m sorry it came to this. Sometimes I think people forget we’re human beings because of the way we communicate online, and this would not be acceptable in the offline world. All I can offer you, and all of the volunteers, is my respect, and I hope it’s enough.

In a previous post I said I wanted to start doing something kind for someone each day as a way of showing that courtesy isn’t dead. Well, now I want to add something to that. I want to show people more respect as well, to thank them for their friendship, and to not take them for granted… that can start now, with the people reading this. Thank you. And if you’ve actually managed to get to the end of this long post, thank you again. 😉

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 Guantánamo.

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? 😉