ON COURTESY – A Saving Grace

As a very young child in a preparatory class in school, I, along with the other pupils, was made to memorize the words on a leaflet stuck on the wall of the schoolroom. The teacher read from the very small print and made us repeat what was written on it to commit it to memory. I don’t recall the order in which things were written, but I do recall that there were many more than the ones mentioned here. The first maxim remains in my memory as being at the top of the list.

Courtesy Rules and Maxims

Speak quietly and courteously. Quiet speech is a mark of refinement.
Do not spit about. It is insanitary and a dirty habit.
Tip your hat when you pass someone on the street.
Remove your hat when you enter a building.
Eat with your mouth closed.
Do not use bad language to others.
Greet your elders when you meet them.
Be kind to others. Kindness is the hallmark of good conduct.

I do not know how many of these maxims are still a part of our social discourse and conduct, but in my scheme of things those are guiding principles.

Last night, I listened to Vice President, Joe Biden at a town hall meeting in Miami hosted by Lester Holt.
The Vice President spoke very clearly and eloquently. His honesty, his passion and his integrity were very evident. One of the things that resonated with me, not so political but more ethical and moral, was that we need to practice the social grace of good conduct in private as well as in public. We need to be more courteous and kind to each other. We need to recognize each other as equal members of the same society in which we live, “brothers in humanity”. This, he said, was the way to rebuild our broken and fragmented American society and end the suspicion and hate that color our thoughts and actions.

The Arabs refer to this as “husnul khuluq” or beautiful behavior in private and public. (Dr. Yasir Qadhi on “The Blessings of Good Manners: Khutbah delivered on 11/15/2013).

The Caliph Umar bin Khattab once said, “When you meet a man on the street, he is either your brother in religion or your brother in humanity”.
The Prophet (SAW) said, “A true believer is one who does not hurt others with his thoughts, words or actions.”

“The best of you is he (or she) who is of most benefit to others.”
(Prophet Muhammad)

Of public concern should be the manner in which we comport ourselves in private as well as in public. Limits should be set with infractions to these limits being impugned and the culprit socially ostracized or we all must be held culpable and accountable.

Cultivation of good manners, deportment and courtesy must be a matter of public concern because it leads to respect for others and is the hallmark of a peaceful society. Our tendency must be to behave with gentleness, decorum and propriety in that space that lies between legal mandate and free choice. It is in that space that we choose to behave within the set limits or to become social pariahs by breaking the common societal rules and norms.

I heard these words a very long time ago and I paraphrase, “A polite society runs smoothly on the wheels of courtesy”. It is what makes people conscious of their roles and responsibilities to each other in a civilized sphere of life. We, as members of a civilized social community, set up rules and limitations for polite behavior that will protect and uphold the safety, the honor and integrity, the health, the possessions, the self-esteem, the wellbeing of the families of those who belong to that social group.
Behavior that exemplifies decorum and civility, benevolence and kindness, humility and quiet speech, gentleness and politeness must be the hallmark of our social discourse. These attributes will make others feel at ease in the presence of those who display them. This is the quintessence of courtesy- making others feel at ease in your presence. This behavior attracts others to the one who displays it.

Maya Angelou wrote, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did but people will never forget how you made them feel.” For good or for bad, people remember how you made them feel.

If we examine the ten commandments of Moses or the tenets of any religion, we will find that they are really rules for correct conduct in any society – “Husnul Khuluq”.

Joe Biden, last night, hinted that many people will think of the practice of courteous behavior as “old fashioned”, as anachronistic, out of date, not in keeping with modern thought and behavior.

Why should this be so? Have we moved so far away from the practice of courteous behavior in private and in public that we should think of polite conduct as an anachronism?
If so, with what have we replaced it?
Laughing at those who have physical defects?
Lying and cheating? We lie and cheat on those who are members of our society. How is that a good thing?
Stealing from the poor?
Thinking of yourself as better than the “common herd” because you are rich?
Public displays of boorish conduct?
Use of bad language?
Insulting the vulnerable in the presence of others?
Dishonoring others in their absence?
Ignoring those we see as beneath us?

The ideal of courtesy has been eroded by the practice of these kinds of behaviors. Rudeness, loud speech, aggression, highlighting the physical defects of the weak and the vulnerable are the enemies of courtesy.

Arrogance vs. humility, dishonor vs. integrity, falsehoods vs. truth, divisiveness vs mediation and peace- making permeate the social and political status quo.
How are you? Please. Thank you, Do you mind? May I? Excuse me, please? Would you rather..? given with innate grace and not gratuitously, show a genuine concern for the feelings of others.

Saying “Thank you” to those who serve – the mailman, the waitress, the shop assistant, the post office attendant, the garbage collector, the maid – asking an employee about his wellbeing, showing concern for the wellbeing for those under our care and employ, helping those in need of it, speaking with concern and kindness, restraint from insulting or admonishing others in public to cause them to lose face, the practice of these must be born out of an inbred instinct to make others feel good and at ease in our presence.

There is no excuse for vulgarity, none for boorish behavior, no amount of goodwill must overlook rudeness, the tendency that using foul language is the hallmark of wit. Heaven forbid.
When some among us give credence to such social practices, they create a new set of rules for hostile, and impolite conduct which can result in violence, in hatred, in resentment among the members of the social group.

THEN, if and when we have all accepted the new standard of behavior, that is when we will descend like Lucifer in Milton’s Paradise Lost into chaos, to public animalistic behavior. Our “brave new world”!

Cultivating, preserving, and upholding the old forms of correct social conduct, those Courtesy Rules and Maxims, must be seen as a social mandate, a contract, and as a tribute to the best in each of us. The social ethos in which we now find ourselves is fracturing, falling apart, with some members holding on to the sanity of proper conduct, while others are bent on destroying it.

This descent to social chaos bodes ill for everyone.
Let us not descend into that chaos ourselves.

2 thoughts on “ON COURTESY – A Saving Grace

  1. This piece is excellent! I absolutely love it. I find your title of On Courtesy- A Saving Grace to be a lovely play on words, and so appropriate and needed to the times in which we live. We all seem to live together in this great big world, but we lack the true concept of community. We lack concern and caring for each other, which leads to people making decisions that only benefit themselves; a selfish world. If more people practise courtesy I believe it will be a saving grace for our world. Thank you for writing this.

    Like

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