I am not one of those people who rejoices in etiquette. I'm one of those people who avoided a certain person at family reunions for about 15 years because I was certain I had forgotten to send someone a thank you card after my wedding.
I'm committed to etiquette enough to feel guilty when I don't do it, but not committed enough to follow through. It's the worst of both worlds.
Image by cc511 via FlickrNevertheless, I do believe that simple politeness is one of the cornerstones of our society. Saying please and thank you; deferring to those who are older than you; offering to help a young mom struggling with a stroller while trying to enter a door, or an older person struggling with a walker. These are the things that keep our culture functioning.
They serve another purpose, too. They remind us that we are not the centre of the universe, and that others deserve our attention and deference at times simply because they, too, are people. I must admit to getting a little bit teed off when clerks who are waiting on me at a store won't look me in the eye, don't say thank you, and treat me as if I'm an inconvenience. It's important to be polite to those who are around you because it's how we keep everything running smoothly.
And it even goes deeper than that. Our society has devolved recently so that we don't just have political differences; we tend to dehumanize the other side. They're not wrong; they're evil. They're beyond the pale. And when we start thinking of the other side as evil, then it's easy to believe that they don't deserve common courtesy. In fact, they deserve much worse than that. They should be lectured, hectored, or ostracized. And we see this in much of political discourse today, even just at dinner parties.
I was reminded of that when I saw this picture today, which is making quite a stir in my home, Canada:
Taken yesterday at the nuclear summit, Obama is lecturing Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in front of reporters, about something.
I don't want to get into the politics of it; that's not the point of what I'm trying to say (except to point out that this won't work out well for Obama in the long run; note Harper's fist. He's not happy). The point is this: it is tradition that one does not lecture or insult the democratically elected leader of an allied nation in public, in the same way that it is a tradition that one does not bring up politics or money at a family Thanksgiving dinner, or insult a host's politics, or question their religion. You just don't.
You give them the benefit of the doubt and you give them the courtesy to save face and you keep your thoughts to yourself until a more appropriate time to bring them up.
Yet I have found lately that these common courtesies are being thrown out the window. The only reason I can think of that President Obama would feel free to harangue Harper is that Obama truly thinks he is superior in some way, and that superiority means that he is no longer subject to the rules of etiquette (or perhaps he thinks that Harper is so far inferior that he is no longer deserving of the rules of etiquette). Etiquette helps us from becoming prideful, and it helps us from dehumanizing or judging others too harshly, because it forces us to act humanely.
Recently, though, when I was shopping, my youngest daughter said, "thank you" loudly to the cashier as we left and then said to me, "Honestly, Mommy, you never say thank you." She took me aback. I thought I always said thank you. But I guess sometimes I mumble, or if I'm in a hurry, I don't.
Increasingly I think we're getting lazy about such matters of etiquette. And while they may not fall into the same category as the picture above, if we don't take care of the little things, we're going to find ourselves in a mess of our own making. Our lack of humility will be apparent to all, and we will become boors.
So I want to make it a practice to say "thank you" more. I recently bought some cards and I am going to start writing thank you cards--even to people that I don't always particularly appreciate (in fact, perhaps especially to those I don't always appreciate when I see that they have done something worthwhile). It's part of recognizing the good in others, and recognizing the lack in ourselves. That's what healthy societies are built on, and when we forget that, and just rely on our own self-image, we are heading on a slippery slope indeed.
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Labels: etiquette, parenting, social issues