I have often wondered why common courtesy has become an anachronism in so many places today. Growing up in the Deep South, we don’t think it to be anything but normal to say “excuse me”, “please”, “would you mind” or “thank you” when called for; we just do it, without any premeditation at all. It’s something that our parents, grandparents, teachers and even our neighbors expected us to do and they programmed it into us from a time before we have conscience memory of it happening. If someone gave you something, your parents would immediately utter the dreaded four words: “What do you say?” to make sure that you told the benefactor “thank you” for whatever you were given. In fact, it could already be on the tip of your tongue but your parents were going to beat you to it, not because they thought you might forget but because they wanted to make sure the benefactor knew they were doing their job in teaching you to have good manners. It would be hard now to program it out of us after so many years of training in this field.
Another thing that was drilled into you is that if you go into or out of a public building such as Macy’s (it was Rich’s when I was growing up and still should be), if someone was coming out behind you, you always waited and held the door open for them. Of course, there were rules to observe about this such as calculating the distance behind you that someone might be but if they were making reasonably good speed and were within a distance of 15 feet behind you, you always held the door until they had control of it. If it were a man, you just waited until he had his hand on the door, at which time you release and move on; if it were a woman, you went out and waited with the door open for her to pass, allowing her to go ahead of you. It wasn’t that you were being sexist…it was just a sign of gentlemanly respect.
My first trip to New York City was a bit of a rude awakening for me. As I went in and out of stores on Fifth Avenue, people of both genders would look strangely at me as I waited and held the door for them, not sure whether I was going to mug them or try to convert them to Christianity. It was disconcerting to say the least because I didn’t understand that people just didn’t do that there-nor did they wait to hold the door for you either, which was fine because I try never to expect people to do that…but try as I might, I could not consciously make myself not do it, even though I was in a strange city, far from barbecue, catfish and the comforts of home.
New York had already begun a change prior to 9/11 and after that dreadful event, it really gained momentum….people started caring about each other again and pulling together. The city had been cleaned up, Central Park and the streets were as safe as any big city and people looked like they actually enjoyed being there. Going back to New York 20 years later, I still held the door open for people but now I got no strange looks of uneasiness and some even said “thank you”. On more than one occasion, someone waited for me to catch the door. Words like “excuse me” were a more common and the service people even seemed friendlier and nicer as they took my order for genuine Italian food. It makes paying the almost 9% sales tax at restaurants a lot more bearable.
Courtesy and good manners are both hallmarks of civilization, and that civilization is what sets us apart from lower life forms. It represents our ability to rise above the baser instincts of our primal ancestors because we can make the choice to be better than the original version of ourselves. A car can only be as good as its creator; it cannot improve itself without direct action by someone but a person has the ability and the choice to improve upon themselves and should never stop aspiring towards improvement. New York didn’t and that’s why it’s the greatest big city on earth.