Common Courtesy: It Really Ain’t That Hard

We’ve all experienced rude behavior. Be it someone pushing past you in a grocery store aisle without so much as an “excuse me,” when someone in a neighboring apartment feels that three am is the perfect time to play obnoxiously loud music or even when someone cuts you off in traffic are some of the myriad examples of decidedly bad behavior.

The Merriam-Webster Online dictionary defines Courtesy as: polite behavior that shows respect for other people. By extension, Common Courtesy is polite behavior “belonging to or shared by two or more people or groups,” ostensibly for the smooth functioning of society as well as for the acknowledgement of common human dignity. Unfortunately, that isn’t how things really happen.

The first time I witnessed this sort of behavior, I was appalled–but then, I was eight years-old.

My brother and I witnessed another kid throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery store because his mother told him that he could not have candy. Having been raised to say “please,” “thank you,” and “pardon me,” we expected the parent of said child to explain how his behavior was simply unacceptable and then punish him accordingly. That, however, did not happen. Instead, his mother pleaded with him to stop, but eventually gave in to him, putting the candy he’d wanted into the cart. My brother and I had looked at each, the hamster wheels of possibility squeaking in our heads. It was at this point our mother said: “Don’t even think about it.”

I’m not criticizing parenting styles. I’m pointing out how we, as a society, abhor rude behavior, yet put up with it nonetheless–even rewarding it in some cases.

I was at a big-box hardware store with a friend, returning surplus wood from a home improvement project. There were two associates behind the service counter; one was engaged in a transaction with another customer, and the other associate was staring at her terminal. Since we did not see any signs stating she was closed, we assumed that she was open. We stood there for ten minutes, without even so much as a simple word of acknowledgement, though she did still manage to make eye contact with us and blow us off at the same time (gotta give her points for her ability to multitask). And then, she disappeared down and behind the counter and then returned with an unplugged computer along with its attendant cords, at which point she turned and walked away from us and the counter.

At this point the first associate finished with her previous customer and then proceeded to help us with our return, with the courtesy and efficiency that her colleague sorely lacked. As we left the store, my friend and I (both of us having extensive working experience in the customer service industry) talked about our disappointment in the treatment we received (or more accurately didn’t receive) at the hands of Miss Too Busy for Your Business. Our dissatisfaction stemmed mainly from the simple lack of common courtesy that is taught to every rookie Customer Service Associate–no matter what type of business in which you are employed: When a customer is waiting, but you are unable to help them right away, you let them know you see them and that someone, if not you personally, will help them just as soon possible.

“Someone will help you in just a moment.” It’s a very simple phrase; not Astrophysics, not Neurosurgery, not even remotely Customer Service insider jargon.

I’m not completely without sympathy. Indeed the other end of this equation is the problem with the dictum: “The Customer is Always Right.”

The problem with this is it gives license for people to treat those who work in the service industry like garbage. In my 10 plus years of customer service experience, I have had people get angry at me for interrupting their cell phone call by asking them to pay for their items while they were at my register; throwing any number of things at me from DVDs they wanted to buy or rent, to membership cards they were irritated that I asked to see (and then their ID cards when I needed it for verification), to actual money (coins too!) rather than simply hand them to me. I’ve had people threaten me with physical assault. I once even ran into a customer outside my job who proceeded to spit homophobic slurs at me.

My main issue with the above adage is that it binds the hands of those who chose to be of service and, in essence, forces them to eat shit with a smile–for minimum wage! Many times we are told that it is the nature of the beast–we just have to shake it off, don’t be so sensitive, to stop whining. I’ve had supervisors shrug their shoulders and tell me to get over it after a customer screamed at me for me being “a barely trained monkey” when I told him he had overdue movies. The lack of actual support is one of the myriad reasons the service industry has such high turn-over, yet business owner only seem to focus on the money in the grubby little hands of the public–fuck their employees. It is as though when we put on our uniforms and nametags, we are no longer entitled to be treated like fellow human beings.

Within the larger social context, refusing to see our shared humanity is how wars, rape, murder and genocide really start. I know, it sounds like hyperbole but I assure you it isn’t. Every study of serial killers/rapists eventually touches on how the perpetrators saw their victims as objects, not actual people. From concentration camps to “ethnic cleansing,” they all start out with the idea that whoever is getting wiped out is not human, but pestilence to be destroyed. It’s this banality of dehumanization that disturbs me–and it all starts with each of us forgetting our common humanity.

Being polite does not mean you have to completely subjugate your own wants and needs in deference to others. Being polite still allows for you to stand up for yourself, indeed it encourages you to do so. Think about it, courtesy doesn’t just mean you have to be civil to others, but it means people must be civil to you as well. As to the question of who decides the rules of conduct… Well, we all do. That’s where the “Common” in common courtesy comes into play; we all have to decide what politeness is and what isn’t. In some homes, profanity is quite common, while in others saying “crap” is an offense worthy of having one’s mouth washed out with soap. In some homes, not knowing what the function of each of the numerous forks, spoons and knives in a place setting is considered to be a symptom of being raised by wolves, while in other homes, reaching across the dinner table to take food off of someone’s plate with filthy hands is hardly blinked at. While these are extreme examples, they do demonstrate a need for balance when formulating polite rules of common society.

I know it’s easy to whine about the ills of the world, but so much harder to fix them. However, many times it starts with just the simple act of being nice to someone when they’re having a bad day. Hell, most times it’s really just about not being a jerk.

Now, it’s your turn: In what small ways do you try to make the world a better–or at least less crappy–place?


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