Lives of the Cannibals: On Courtesy

Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, makes a shockingly good living by writing books and newspaper columns about etiquette. She dispenses advice on such things as the best way to discourage troublesome relatives from ruining your wedding, how to acknowledge the embarrassing medical conditions of your friends, and whether or not to invite the male, teenage lover of your sixty year-old father-in-law to Thanksgiving dinner. In an airy, archaic voice, she responds to her dear readers’ questions with light humor and cultured superiority, and whenever I read her I can’t help but think what a shame it is we don’t all live in her world. If only we had progressed to a stage where the finer points of etiquette that she addresses–properties of conduct established in a community, with a stress on ceremony and formal observances–were the main source of our behavioral troubles. Unfortunately, we haven’t. Instead, we continue to struggle with a more fundamental aspect of human interaction, namely courtesy, which can be defined simply as polite behavior. Basic courtesy distinguishes itself from manner of speech, appearance and cultural taste in that it is a social indicator that transcends socioeconomic status, formal education and intelligence; what it describes best is the degree of one’s humanity. Courtesy, at its most fundamental level, is about respect–for the presence of others, for their sensibilities, and for the peaceable working of society as a whole.

It is indicated by something as minor as brief eye-contact, and by substantial personal sacrifice as well, often in the form of the suspension of one’s own satisfaction in favor of another’s. But even in its smallest observance its effect outstrips the effort required to produce it. In New York City, a reasonably sensitive person can move through his day and encounter a hundred instances of basic courtesy, and the same number of violations of it, too, and be psychically crushed or uplifted accordingly. Certainly, there is a great deal of rage here, much crude sexuality, and incessant pressure from sheer sweat-soaked density, but you’d be wrong to imagine that the city’s inhabitants are uniformly rude. In fact, Reader’s Digest found that New Yorkers are the most courteous among the residents of 35 cities around the world (one per country), with a remarkable 80% of them passing a politeness test. It should be said that this test is a blunt tool, measuring only three aspects of behavior–holding doors, helping to pick up papers dropped on the street, and the manners of retail clerks (this last, inexplicably, was tested only at Starbuck’s locations). But still, the point is valid. Just as New York abounds with opportunities to royally screw the next guy, so too does it offer the gentle among us plenty of chances to display our refinement. And, owing to the mercurial nature of human beings, the guy who lets the door slam in your face today may well be the one who holds it open for you tomorrow. We are, none of us, our best selves at every moment, and in this pressurized environment we won’t always pause to assist the smirking Reader’s Digest journalist who has just–oops!–let slide out of her hand a short manuscript (written in fourth grade-level prose) intended for publication in next month’s issue. What’s more, in New York even courtesy is a bottom-line transaction, negotiated with narrow eyes and balled fists, for which the city’s sidewalks are a perfect forum. You will find, as you approach someone walking in the direction opposite yours, that if you make no lateral move to afford him space, he will respond in kind, with (best-case scenario) a tensed brush of shoulders resulting. More often, however, actual cracking physical contact will come of it (and crude words exchanged for good measure): billy goats butting horns on a hillside. But should you feel generous that day, a minor indication of courtesy–the smallest lateral move, or even the suggestion of a lateral move–will inspire the same from your opposition, and you’ll share the sidewalk in relative harmony.

Courtesy is a double-sided behavior, fully loaded with both positive and negative implication: It is forceful in its commission, and equally so in its absence. We communicate primitive dominance as well as refinement through the details of our behavior, and in this respect courtesy is little different from style of dress or vocal timbre. Allowing a door to close behind you is a message and a sentiment no less than is holding it open for the next person; in both cases you express yourself and your respect for those around you. In this sense, courtesy, or lack of it, is a weapon. That most basic of urban prohibitions, spitting, is a fine example of the conscious and violent absence of courtesy. Much as someone can direct his voice to indicate unmistakably its intended receiver, he can spit on the street and manage to communicate, through the intensity of expectoration and the relish with which it is committed, particular and specific contempt. An act of this kind should not be mistaken for anything other than a conscious gesture of discourtesy, just as expressive, if not more so, as its gentle flip-side. And in fact even positive acts of courtesy can be freighted with negative messages. Courteous behavior directed to three out of four people in a group is expressive not so much of respect for those three who received the benefit of the positive act, but of contempt for that fourth who was ignored. The insult is especially weighty when considered in the context of the group dynamic, where the awareness of the other three people involved maximizes the disrespect, both as it is communicated by the committer and as it is understood by the receiver.

America is, paradoxically perhaps, courtesy’s home-base and special flashpoint. Search the word on Google, and in the first two pages you’ll find websites for three car dealerships, a retail aircraft operation, and a motel in Eugene, Oregon. Courtesy is a marketing force in the land of the free, a hallmark of smart commerce, and a bullet point in every revolutionary book on business strategy. America’s most successful retailers (Starbuck’s among them) exhaustively train their employees to demonstrate courtesy in every interaction, and then give them colorful buttons to pin on their aprons in order to redouble the message: we are cheerful and desperate to please you! It’s no coincidence that two out of the three most courteous cities are in North America (the third is Zurich). Toronto, our little northern brother’s most American city, was right up there with New York in the survey. It must be due to America’s history of egalitarianism. We’ve had no regimented class system here, no landed gentry, and no kings to receive our fealty, thus courtesy, which is simply the most basic expression of etiquette, was never associated with abstruse rules of court or relations between nobles and their peasants. In America, every man deserves to be looked in the eye when spoken to, thanked for his patronage, and invited to come back again. We are the smiley-face nation, where everyone, by God, no matter what, should have a nice day.