A Little Courtesy Goes A Long Way
Life is already tough enough, so be polite. Then wait to see what happens next.
The weekend is here and I’m thinking about my time at work (but not for long). I’m recalling how one customer told me about his work environment. He told me he felt like he was in high school again with coworkers making snarky, sarcastic remarks and picking on him. I can recall how distracted he was about his circumstance, and how he made a point of saying that he appreciated his relationship with his management.
I’ve somehow been fortunate to not have to work in an environment where there was so much conflict in the workplace. I’ve always managed to slot into jobs where the people are friendly, courteous, and helpful. I’ve never worked in a place where people yelled at each other, insulted each other, or even played practical jokes on each other. If they did, I didn’t see it. Still, I’ve managed to miss much of that kind of behavior.
I saw in my customer how distracted he was from the antics of his coworkers. I knew that was costing his employer money. And I saw why it is company policy where I work that any form of harassment is not tolerated. I’ve seen management move swiftly to deal with people who get out of control. I’m grateful that I actually work on a team that engages in mutual assistance every day.
Working in such circumstances doesn’t come without discipline, and fortunately, I came to the job with that discipline in hand. For much of my life, I’ve made a point of being polite to others. I learned from the mistakes of others, my antagonists in school. For about 5 years of my life, I was teased on a daily basis at school. I saw the pain of taunting, practical jokes, rumors, and gossip, first hand, as the target. I also saw the value of courtesy first hand when I asked for help from the teachers and the principals of the schools I attended for those years. I still carry that discipline to this day.
As I grew from a boy into a man, I noticed how I was feeling when I was speaking to others. I noticed a sharp pang in my chest when I spoke with a sharp tongue. I noticed a burning sensation in my stomach if I hurt someone with my words. I also notice a sense of peace in my chest and my gut when I was polite. I have found my moral compass in my chest and my gut.
I don’t burn bridges. I’ve tried that a few times and realized that burning bridges is far more trouble than it’s worth. So I always leave the door open to the people in my life. I’m not a leaver. I don’t leave the people in my life, but I let them leave if they want to leave. I recognize that someone leaving my life is doing so for reasons that may or may not be in their control and for reasons that may not have anything to do with me. If I’ve done my part, politely, courteously, then I know that when someone leaves, it’s on them, not me. I know that I did the best that I could and I don’t pound myself for not doing better.
I’ve also noticed that courtesy, practiced many, many times, over a long period of time yields dividends and compound interest. The first dividend is a good night of sleep. I comport myself in such a way that I can sleep at night. If I’m courteous, I sleep better at night, and with a good night of rest, I can make better decisions the next day. Wash, rinse, repeat. With each passing week, I got better at it. Months turned into years of courtesy until I had built a well-worn habit of courtesy.
That habit of courtesy pays off in another dividend: opportunities. Courtesy attracts opportunities. Employers like courtesy, especially if they want to hire someone to work the front lines of their business. I work on the front lines in my job. We might even say that “Loose lips, sink ships”. In this context, we’re not talking about the secrecy required to win a war. We’re talking about having the self-restraint to use good judgment in our manner and style of speaking. When we have that kind of judgment and restraint, we know our audience before we speak. Discretion is the better part of valor.
Another benefit of courtesy is that the practice of courtesy tends to increase our capacity for empathy. I’ve seen that when I have been rude and disagreeable with others, I get an emotional charge, and that charge can be habit-forming, even addictive. But the strong feelings associated with a sharp tongue come at a cost: a decrease in our capacity to notice our impact on others. When we’re polite with another, we’re not charged with strong feelings and therefore, we can maintain awareness of our impact on others. Courtesy yields compound interest in the sense that people notice our courtesy when they need help. When people ask me for help, that’s an opportunity.
I have had interactions with people at work who were seeking help from me. They said that they came to me again and again because I “didn’t bite their head off for asking a stupid question.” I don’t believe there is such a thing as a stupid question. I got that idea from a Sherlock Holmes play starring Frank Langella as Holmes. I recall the dialogue between Holmes and his trusty assistant, Watson. To paraphrase:
Watson: Holmes, I wonder if I might trouble you with a trivial question.
Holmes: My dear Watson, there is no such thing as a trivial question.
There is no such thing as a trivial question. I never forgot that. So when my coworkers ask me a question that they are worried that they should know, I let it pass. I don’t castigate them for asking a question, no matter how trivial it might seem. Everyone has to start somewhere, and I learned that philosophy from the Linux community.
More to the point, if I reprimand someone for asking a trivial question, they may never ask the question again. And that could lead to a lost customer at work, a loss of confidence in a friend, or a loss of trust from a child. The dividend we want to earn here is influence. I maintain a tiny bit of influence on the people around me by sharing useful information nicely. I get compound interest by modeling behavior that people will naturally imitate, so the favor is returned. We learn by imitation. People will do as I do not as I say.
When I see people being rude, I assume that those other people are having a bad day. I can fan the flames or smother them with kindness and courtesy. When someone is rude to me, I don’t take it personally. If that person is a customer, then it’s my job not to snap back with harsher words. I’m not the one having a bad day, my customer is. My job is to make his day better. My job is to help him look better to his manager, and up the ladder to the person who signs the checks that pay the fees that pay my salary.
Similarly, when people I love are rude or snarky to me, I consider the source. I assume that they lack the capacity to do better. Rather than try to best them with a snide remark, criticism, or insult, I let it slide. If I feel a strong feeling in response to a harsh comment, I let it pass until it’s gone. Then I make a decision about what to do. I consider the possible outcomes of the options available to me. I remember that it’s not possible to hurt someone else without hurting myself, even if the weapons are just words.
A habit of courtesy repeated thousands of times over many years will lead to peace. I won’t say it’s guaranteed, but the tendency for courtesy to lead to peace is very strong. I should know. I’ve been living this way for much of my life. Simple courtesy practiced on a daily basis can lead to good mental health, wealth, and a sense of well being that is difficult if not impossible to achieve being rude. The path to peace is paved with courtesy.