“The greater person is one of courtesy.” Lord Alfred Tennyson
“Manners are the happy way of doing things.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Politeness is the flower of humanity.” Joseph Joubert
Emily Post I am not! Last year at a party where I knew only a few people, I noticed a woman sitting across the room who knew even fewer people there than I did. I hadn’t seen her talking to anyone, so I walked over to her and eventually sat on the large arm of the chair she was sitting in, and visited for a while. The next day (yes, the next day), I read in a newspaper column about etiquette that you should never sit on the arm of a chair!
My first reaction was one of embarrassment – I hadn’t really noticed what I was doing when I made myself comfortable next to the young woman. There weren’t any other chairs nearby, so I had just sat down without really thinking (and it was a large overstuffed chair). So maybe I did commit a faux pas, but my intention was to engage someone in conversation who looked a little uncomfortable and alone. Hopefully the woman appreciated it, and hopefully I didn’t hurt the chair!
Good manners are important to me, but not just so that I look good. The real purpose of good manners is the way it makes other people feel. It sounds like a stretch to say that treating other people the way you would like to be treated can help to change the world, but it is clearly a good place to start.
When I was eight and half months pregnant with my second child, I went to the clinic for a check-up, and every seat in the waiting room was taken. I ended up having a long wait, so eventually I sat on the floor. Now, twenty-some years later, I still remember that day.
I wasn’t so much upset as I was amazed that no one got up to offer me their seat (I was huge!). If someone had, I believe I would still remember that day, but with an entirely different memory and feeling. To be fair, perhaps everyone in that clinic was very sick and needed to sit, and I am thankful that I could still get down on the floor and back up at that stage of pregnancy.
The point is, the way we treat people matters – it matters to them, it matters to us, and it matters to the society in which we live. The way we treat people creates feelings, and good feelings help to produce harmony and health.
It is not so much about rules as it is about valuing each person we see. We have the power to generate feelings in other people, and feelings produce actual chemicals in our bodies. Doing good to others can produce feel-good chemicals in those on the receiving end, as well as those giving, and the same process may happen to those who just observe a good deed or positive interaction.
This is especially important when dealing with children or vulnerable adults with disabilities. Perhaps not having learned to take responsibility for their own feelings, cruel and thoughtless remarks and actions can have a deeper effect on them. Jesus spoke about the tender and thoughtful treatment of children, and with good reason.
I believe that it is impossible to become a whole person until we learn to treat others the way we would want to be treated (at least understand the importance of it and make a consistent attempt). Never underestimate the power of small things, and don’t forget that what you give out always comes back to you.