I recently received an unusual surprise: an anonymous note on my unit door posted by a neighbor who obviously wanted to remain unknown. The note contained a noise complaint. Days later, having successfully resolved the noise issue (the neighbor never identified himself or herself, and the condo building board never received a complaint), the matter of good manners hovered on my thoughts for a while.
While I was working out the noise problem, I was working with a very polite client of mine on a multilanguage layout project for a local lighting company in Ohio. Each lighting fixture is sold with an information sheet in Spanish and Canadian French. These sheets are composed in InDesign CC; my task involved setting the translated text to an InDesign document (given by the customer or freshly created by myself). A pretty simple workflow.
However, my customer and I were facing miscommunication problems and some curt responses to our queries. My customer is a consummate diplomat in these situations; he has the capacity to listen and absorb his translators’ complaints and misgivings about a project but he will reframe them to the client in a way that is true to content but respectful to the customer.
Theodore Roosevelt said: “Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.” In Spanish we have an older saying with the same meaning: “Lo cortés no quita lo valiente.”
However, there are different degrees of courtesy accorded to family members, friends, neighbors, business associates, distant relatives and complete strangers. The way I learned to be courteous and polite can be summarized thus:
- Show equanimity (temple, in Spanish) in the face of rudeness
- Continue to be nice in the face of antipathy
- Give a calm response to angry outbursts
- When in doubt, be polite
- Avoid namecalling
- Give the benefit of the doubt as the other person may have different reasons for saying/acting the way he does
- Internalize (i.e. be sincere) all your expressions of courtesy to avoid sounding like a phony
These are some of my own standards of courtesy. Very few things in life anger me more than a lack of civility; however, I rarely, if ever, respond in anger. If I do, I am quick to apologize.
But you might think that all this talk about politeness is old news to you, even a trite topic. But courtesy is like humor: it’s not universal and nobody expresses it quite at the same expected level. Agreed, the Japanese and Koreans may exhibit a more elaborate degree of courtesy than New Yorkers or Texans. The point remains that we should cultivate a basic level of courteous behaviors to the point that they become second nature, regardless of our interlocutor’s behavior or level of courtesy. It is only by internalizing these behaviors that we can avoid two disagreeable outcomes:
- Look and sound like phonies
- Our expressions of friendship and concern are manipulative
During a Graham Norton show a few years ago, a British comedian made a shrewd observation about Americans: “In California, people are friendly in order to network and offer their business cards” (the paraphrasing is mine). Sadly, I’ve seen the same behavior in countless conferences, meetups and social gatherings across America. In short, the behavior I’ve witnessed can be summarized as I’ll be friends with you if you buy something from me.
Consequently, have we come to expect courteous behavior only when things go our way or when we stand to benefit from a relationship with a customer or a colleague? What is more relevant to you, business owner or company representative, should courtesy permeate your business dealings in every situation?
The acquisition of manners finds its best vehicle in the home, and behaving well under pressure is its best expression. Good manners harness a person’s virtues —those tried-and-true character traits— found deep inside him as sunlight brings out the hues and tints on a landscape. It is through good manners shown that most people form a good opinion of an individual: she’s patient, respectful, attentive, friendly, dependable. Social media may be the desert mirage where good manners evaporate, but we can still rise to the occasion and let our goodness through with a kind gesture, which is at the root of all civility.
Have we become so concerned with that sad substitute for a good name, brand, that weed masquerading as a flower which thrives only on poor soils? Are we so enamored with the glitter of one-word descriptions as shortcuts to communication, thus relegating courtesy to the perpetual folder of “Nice to have”? I am persuaded that politeness, far from being the much-maligned veneer of politicians, narcissistic managers and con artists, begins with integrity and self awareness, attributes commonly found in “individuals of stature and profundity, of flesh and substance…”, as noted arts advocate Eric Larrabee once wrote.
Being courteous is a hallmark of professionalism as well. Indeed, showing up on time for interviews and meetings, for example, reveals respect for the individual and for her time. In writing this piece, my intent is to invite you to ponder the following: are you being polite to your colleagues, customers and vendors because you are naturally courteous…or because it is a means to an end?
Think about it. All candid and courteous comments are welcome.