Courtesy, politeness, good manners - call it what you will, in our hectic society the supply never seems to equal the demand. Human beings everywhere hunger for courtesy, and are repelled by the lack of it. As quoted by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Good manners are the happy way of doing things.” And the reverse is equally true: bad manners can ruin a day - or wreck a friendship.
Most of us, I think, have the uneasy feeling that “common courtesy” was much more common in Emerson’s day than it is in ours. Why should this be so? One explanation is that courtesy isn’t emphasized and enforced the way it was a century or even a generation ago. “Mind your manners,” my mother used to caution us as children whenever we were invited anywhere. There is a simple difference between manners and morals - your morals aren’t always showing; your manners are.
Good manners are a reflection of inner strength and assurance. Indeed, they promote such assurance by eliminating hostility and suspicion. “If we treat people long enough with that pretended liking called politeness,” a wise man has said, “we shall find it hard not to genuinely like them in the end.” If courtesy is such an asset, why is it so uncommon? The blunt reason is that we’re all born self-centred. Good manners require us to place other people’s needs on a level with our own - and learning to do this consistently can be a slow and painful process.
Another ingredient of good manners is modesty. Any attempt to claim special credit for yourself is a departure from true politeness. Implicit in the exhortation to “mind your manners” is the inescapable fact that no one else can mind them for you. The problem is yours, and it lasts a lifetime because no one’s manners are ever perfect. Still, anyone can improve his or her manners by doing three things:
First, by practising courtesy. One simple way is to concentrate on your performance in a specific area for a day or even a week. Telephone manners, for example: how often do you speak abruptly, talk too long, keep people waiting, and fail to identify yourself? What about books on loan you haven’t returned, invitations you haven’t answered, casual promises you haven’t kept?
Second, by thinking courtesy. If your thoughts are predominantly self-directed, a discourteous and selfish person is what you will be. If you train yourself to be considerate, if you can acquire the habit of ‘identifying’ with the problems and hopes and fears of other people, good manners will follow almost automatically.
Nowhere is “thinking” courtesy more important than in a romantic/loving relationship. Novelist Arnold Bennett used to lament in his bachelor days that whenever two of his friends got married the “death of politeness” seemed to follow. Why does this happen? One reason, no doubt, is the very human (albeit erroneous) feeling that we don’t always have to be on our best behaviour with a loved one. Another is that in the intimacy of the home, where masks can be discarded, it is easy to take out frustration or anger on the handiest person - all too often a partner. The only remedy is to train yourself to “think” courtesy until it becomes a habit. When you find your anger getting out of control, force yourself for the next ten minutes to treat your partner as if he or she were a guest in your home. The theory is that if a pair can just impose ten minutes of good manners on themselves, the worst of the storm will blow over.
Finally, you can improve your manners by accepting courtesy, receiving it gladly, and rejoicing when it comes your way. Strangely, some people are suspicious of gracious treatment. They feel uneasy if kindness seems to come to them with no strings attached. But some of the most precious gifts in life come this way. You can’t buy a sunset, or earn the song of a bird. These are God’s courtesies to us, offered with love and no thought of reward or return. Good manners are, or should be, like that.
In the end, it all comes down to how you regard people - not just people in general but individuals. Indeed, politeness is good manners in action. A nice additional beatitude might be this: Blessed are the courteous.
“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” -2 Chronicles 7:14