Can a Dose of Common Courtesy Contribute to the Development of Uncommon People?

Article excerpt

A Plea for Manners

When did it start? People preferring to talk on cell phones, even when they are dining with each other; men wearing baseball hats-backwards-in restaurants, churches, even homes (Who knew that that many men play baseball?); people neglecting to hold doors; failure to use the magic words "please" and "thank you." When did it start?

It's important to ask these questions in order to gauge the level of what passes for civility, and to determine what to do with a lack of common manners, not to cue the courtesy police.

If, indeed, we are supposed to foster a sense of human dignity in our schools and parish religious education programs, then we need to decide if courtesy has anything to do with said human dignity and, if so, what we need to do about it.

My 1950s Catholic schooling included regular lessons on courtesy-lessons that my parents enforced at home. In fact, in my school, we actually had a textbook, "Christian Courtesy," that included chapters on how to introduce people to each other, how to act in a restaurant or a theatre, how to receive guests. The aim was to put others first, and to put their comfort ahead of our own because that is what Jesus did. It also underlined that bit about our being temples of the Holy Spirit-remember that?

Courtesy Lays the Groundwork

Our current interest in teaching youngsters the social justice agenda of the church makes the teaching of courtesy de rigueur the preparatory step toward grappling with issues of justice. After all, doesn't the bumper sticker proclaim "Think globally, act locally"? If justice speaks of right relationships, then courtesy lays the groundwork for developing these in the minds of students. In other words, if respect is the subject, then courtesy is the predicate.

I think I started noticing the lack of some basic skills in courtesy when I took high school students to Europe and discovered that they had no idea how to act in a restaurant. For the generation reared to think in terms of McDonald's or Burger King, all food is "finger food" and all conversation is raucous or else non-existent. After stifling my horror at watching my wonderful students act as if they were raised by wolves, I resolved to have formal courtesy classes with future groups before any of them ever stepped on a plane.

Knowing how to act in a restaurant is, of course, just the beginning of common courtesy. Holding the door for other students or teachers whose arms may be full of books, helping to carry heavy loads, waiting to be called on in class, watching language, letting others precede-these are all antidotes to the current wave of bullying, putdowns and generally poor treatment of classmates and adults. …