I am not one of those people who rejoices in the intricacies of etiquette. I avoided certain distant relatives for a decade after my wedding in mortal dread that I had forgotten to send a thank you card. I’m committed to etiquette enough to feel guilty when I don’t do it, but not committed enough to follow through on all the details. It’s the worst of both worlds.Image by cc511 via Flickr

Nevertheless, 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, or offering to help a young mom struggling with a stroller are all basic things that keep our society functioning.

I must admit to getting a little bit teed off when clerks who are waiting on me won’t make eye contact, don’t say thank you, and treat me as if I’m an inconvenience. An older gentleman I know recently expressed his dismay that teens, hanging out on sidewalks near high schools, often don’t vacate that sidewalk while he walks by, forcing him into the street. At one point, younger people made way for older people. We gave up seats on trains or buses, and we let them through the doors first. Now it’s a dog eat dog world.

Politeness, on the other hand, reminds us that others are worthy of respect. Vacating the sidewalk sends a mental note to our brains that other people are important, too. Staying there sends the opposite message: we are the only ones that matter. And that’s not healthy, either for society’s smooth functioning or for the moral and emotional health of our families. Etiquette reminds us that we are not the centre of the universe. Others deserve our deference simply because they, too, are people. Etiquette keeps us humble.

Recently, while out shopping, my youngest daughter said, “thank you” loudly to the cashier as we left, and then rebuked me, saying, “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. As our culture has forgotten etiquette, I guess I’ve started to let it go, too.

We are growing increasingly lazy about matters of etiquette, at the same time as we are becoming an increasingly callous and self-focused society. Those two things are connected. We only break rules when we think they no longer apply to us. When thinking of others and treating them well is way further down on our priority list than doing what we want, etiquette falls by the wayside, and with it, all the things that brightened our culture.

Saying “please” and “thank you” can seem like a throwback. Hand written thank you notes? So blasé. Holding the door open for others? Neanderthal. Maybe we need a dose of Neanderthal to jerk us out of our selfishness. I want to make it a practice to say “thank you” more. I’m even going to start writing notes—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). I’ll thank them for being cheerful, for helping my child with something, for making a meal. It’s part of recognizing the good in others, and recognizing the lack in ourselves. That’s what healthy societies are built on. When we forget that, and just focus on what we can get out of others, we become boors. And nobody wants to live with a boor.

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