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Common Courtesy

I’ve been reminded that this month is designated National Courtesy Month. In fact, September 2 (yes, I know I’m a little late, but I’m looking at the big picture here) is “Bring Your Manners to Work Day.”

Shouldn’t we be courteous every day and practice good manners everywhere we are?

That’s what my parents taught my brother and me when we were growing up.

“Be polite. Be courteous. Watch your manners.”

She drilled courtesy into us.

“Speak when spoken to. Respect your elders. Hold the door for the ladies. Give up your seat to a lady. Be a gentleman.”

“Even to my sister?” I grimaced. “She’s not a lady!”

“Even to your sister. She will become a lady, so start practicing early.”

That was the norm when I was a kid. When a kid wasn’t courteous or well-mannered or when he was disrespectful–that was the exception. And the exceptions stood out like a sore thumb, even to us kids. And our parents used them as negative examples to reinforce their lessons in courtesy.

When we showed that we were learning those lessons, people noticed it, and they complimented us to our parents. Sometimes we overheard them, and their praise made us feel good. Our teachers recorded it on our grade cards, and that made our parents proud. (Do schools even evaluate such behavior today?)

When we got old enough to drive the car on dates, Mother never let us out of the house without reminding us, “Be sure to open the car door for her.”

We dared not respond, “What?! She’s able to open the door for herself. Why should I do it for her?” We knew better than that.

“Now you be sure to treat her like a lady!” That was always Mother’s final admonition. She didn’t have to elaborate; we knew that it went beyond mere courtesy and encompassed all of morality.

When I taught school, I noticed that many parents of students apparently weren’t teaching their children what my parents had taught us. A shadow of discourtesy and disrespect was falling across the adolescent landscape. Boys and girls alike approached teachers and other adults with an air of familiarity that was foreign to me. Boys hit girls the way they might hit other males. It was all playful, of course, but it was foreign to the code by which I had been reared. I might sometimes feel like hitting my sister–and not in a friendly, juvenile-male fashion, either–but I didn’t dare. To do so would have been ungentlemanly.

As I got still older, I noticed that even many adults apparently had never learned common rules of courtesy and good manners. In such an uncourteous environment, one who does exhibit good manners stands out.

I was riding on a bus somewhere not too long ago. As the bus filled with men and women, I could tell that there would not be enough seats for all of the women if the men with seats kept them. So I rose and offered my seat to a lady in the aisle near me while other men remained seated, oblivious to the need. She responded with surprise, thanked me, but declined my offer. I insisted. Finally, she took the proffered seat. After she exited the bus, I overheard her exclaim to a friend, “That’s the first time that’s happened!”

That incident was a sad commentary on the state of American manhood today! I encountered similar surprised looks whenever a lady came by my work station and I stood in her presence whereas other men remained seated.

What has happened to common courtesy?

Perhaps the highest compliment I’ve ever received from anyone didn’t involve my teaching or my writing or any other such deed. Rather, it was a woman’s description of me as “a Southern gentleman.”

Mother would have been proud–albeit maybe a little surprised. Her hard-taught lessons sunk in after all! May I ever be a true Southern gentleman. Would to God that our society could return to the practice of common courtesy!

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