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Common courtesy is uncommonly important, now more than ever

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Fr. Michael Rennier - published on 05/07/23

Courtesy has started, to some, to seem unnecessary in a fast-paced world. The way I see it, we don’t have time enough to not be courteous.

Recently, I saw a question on a message board that asked, “If you’re a person who doesn’t adhere to common courtesies, can you explain why?” The first answer given was, “Because it’s a pointless waste of time that isn’t all that important.” I thought the answer was interesting, particularly because it showed that lack of common courtesy these days isn’t because people are wanting to be rude. Rather, it’s because courtesy is seen as unnecessary in a fast-paced world. It’s a relic of bygone days, a decorative aspect of behavior that isn’t vital to human interaction. Going by this view, common courtesy should neither be common nor is it all that courteous. The true courtesy, it seems, is to stop wasting each other’s time and get on with our respective days.

It’s indisputable that courtesy takes time. Those extra lines in the email with the nice greeting, the small talk preceding the real reason for the communication — those take time to type out. Texting “please” and, “thank you” can feel like an intolerable burden on that tiny smartphone keyboard. They’re easy to skip. Everything around us is becoming faster and faster – food, communication, automobiles, reactions to news. Shopping is one-click and the items are dropped off on the porch the next day, if not sooner. Opinions are formed quickly and discarded equally fast. As a priest, I’ve even fielded complaints that Sunday Mass was five minutes too long. Courtesy is simply too slow, so it is being left behind.

I’m not making a unique insight to note that the advent of the internet and smartphones have heralded this new age of haste. Digital messages are rushed, dashed off from behind the wheel of the car while sitting at a red light. There’s no context to the words, no smile to go along with them, no physical reaction by which to gauge how our communication has been received. In the internet age, courtesy is inefficient and unnatural.

Those discourteous habits, it seems to me, have begun to affect our face-to-face interactions as well. The excuse is the same; we all claim haste.

The funny thing is, all this quickness and efficiency should leave us with more time to be courteous, but the opposite has actually happened. We’re more rushed than ever. What a strange world. The more efficient we become, the less we accomplish. The more we leave behind, the more burdened our load. The faster we go, the less distance we travel.

What a strange world. The more efficient we become, the less we accomplish. The more we leave behind, the more burdened our load. The faster we go, the less distance we travel.

The way I see it, we don’t have time enough to not be courteous. Life is too short to be rushing about, not slowing down to acknowledge each other. Relationships and genuine connections are essential to leading a happy life, and the less time we have for them, the less happy we will be.

I’m reminded of a famous story about the 18th-entury German philosopher Immanuel Kant. All his life, he had written books to promote the dignity and respect due to all people, unconditional of their station in society. He considered respect for all to be a moral duty, and he followed this duty to the very end. A few days before his death, quite ill, elderly, and almost completely blind, Kant rose from his chair with difficulty when his doctor entered the room for a home visit. He waited for the doctor to be seated before following suit. Later, he was pleased to know, “The sense of humanity has not abandoned me.” Common courtesy was that important to him.

One thing I like about that story is it reveals an important aspect of courtesy – it ought to be present even when I don’t feel like being courteous. In fact, common courtesy is even more important when I’m not in the mood. When I’m tired, impatient, annoyed, or rushed, that’s exactly when the virtue of courtesy comes to the rescue. Courtesy isn’t genuine if it’s only offered when I feel like it and to the people I like. It must be a consistent habit.

It’s not a drawback, either, if courtesy causes inconvenience. My absolutely favorite scenario is a group of friends out to lunch and there’s one piece of pizza left. It’s totally up for grabs but no one wants to be discourteous and take it. It’s one of those funny little aspects of courtesy that makes me smile. It reveals a deep truth, which is that courtesy is grounded in thinking of the other person first. It defers.

Courtesy is great because it doesn’t cost anything other than a little time and thoughtfulness. It’s exceedingly easy to tell a passing stranger that you like his shirt, or ask the grocery store clerk how her day is going. These small gestures can make a big difference to the person receiving them. I know I feel happy when I receive courtesy, even if slightly surprised. It can change the mood of my whole day.

The gift of happiness we pass on to each other is the whole point of courtesy. Courtesy slows down and recognizes personhood. It affords respect to absolutely everyone, even if the interaction is only in passing. Holding the door open for a person behind me is a simple way to acknowledge that they exist in the world and I’m happy they’re here. I’m happy to share it with them. I don’t have to say a word to put positive energy into the world. This positivity reflects back to the giver. I’m happier when I’m courteous, even if my efforts are unacknowledged.

Holding the door open for a person behind me is a simple way to acknowledge that they exist in the world and I’m happy they’re here.

Does courtesy take time? Yes, it absolutely slows us down. It isn’t all that much time, though, and the slowing down is of great benefit. It isn’t a waste. It’s an acknowledgment that other people are valuable and there’s much more to life than racing through it as efficiently as possible.

Our lives are marked by great loves – friendship, spouse, family – but equally important are all the small loves, the courtesies. The great loves have their time and place, but the small loves we can practice every single day.

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