As a student at university in the 80s I had a traumatic experience. One day, as I was walking out of the library, I noticed a female student, a complete stranger, walking out right behind me. So I did the courteous thing and held the door open for her to go out first. What followed still haunts my nightmares! How dare I do such a thing! She launched into an aggressive tirade about how patronising I was being; did I think that she was incapable of opening a door for herself? Who did I think I was? Welcome to the world of late twentieth century feminism! I did the only the only thing I could: I apologised for my thoughtlessness and walked out the door.
In a world where relationships have changed in so many ways, I find it sad that good old fashioned courtesy has been one of the casualties. It hasn’t been totally eradicated of course, but it has certainly decreased greatly in importance. There are some who argue that this is not such a bad thing. Courtesy can certainly be used a cloak for anger, insults or sarcasm. But that is misuse – it is not the courtesy’s fault, but the user’s.
Others complain that courtesy encourages insincerity. Isn’t it better to just be honest about our feelings rather than hide them under a formal disguise of good manners? Again, one must distinguish between use and misuse. There is nothing inherent in courtesy to make us act insincerely. It should always be practiced from the heart, with feelings of love towards others. And that same love dictates that we must be honest with each other. All courtesy does is ensure that when we are honest, we do so with respect, kindness and consideration.
For me, one of the images that epitomises the sublime nobility of courtesy is the famous 1500m race in 1956 where John Landy went back to help fellow runner Ron Clarke who had tripped over. Incredibly, Landy went on to catch up to the rest of the field and win the race! I wonder how many people today would do what he did? And what does that tell us about how we deal with each other?
Courtesy is Biblical. To love one another is the core command that Christ gave us, and again and again in the Bible we find that agape love expressed through courtesy. In that most famous of passages about love, we learn that among other things, “Love … is kind … does not behave rudely, does not seek its own …” 1 Corinthians 13:4,5.
God is courteous towards even those who evil:
But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Luke 6:35
Had Rehoboam been a little more considerate of others, he might not have lost most of his kingdom:
And they spoke to him, saying, “If you are kind to these people, and please them, and speak good words to them, they will be your servants forever.” 2Chronicles 10:7
St Paul included courtesy often in his advice on good living:
Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honour giving preference to one another. Romans 12:10
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. Ephesians 4:32
And St Paul himself practiced what he preached:
Nevertheless, not to be tedious to you any further, I beg you to hear, by your courtesy, a few words from us. Acts 24:4
Old fashioned courtesy is not only Biblical, it helps create and sustain healthy relationships. It is our nature to respond in kind. When someone treats us with contempt we want to get them back, and when someone is kind towards us we are moved to return that kindness. Thus do our actions and attitudes spread to others.
A family where insults and selfish behaviour are the norm ought not be surprised when the children grow up to be self-centred and arrogant towards their parents and others. On the other hand, a family where courtesy is considered essential raises children who are considerate of others and kind towards their parents in their old age.
It may sound trite and out of date, but insisting on common courtesies at home such as saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’; or greeting one another in the morning and bidding each other good night at the end of the day; or sharing the household chores and helping one another; or deferring to one another when a choice must be made as to which television program to watch – small things like this create an atmosphere of courtesy that is unselfish and other-centred. If one can behave this way at home, where all one’s defences are down and the true self is apparent, then one shall surely find it easier to practice sincere and genuine love of others outside the home.
Young couples today often seem to ignore courtesy in their relationship. Like the young lady at the library, young Coptic women may feel that to have a car door opened for them or a chair at the table pulled out for them is insulting or demeaning. To them I say, please rethink! A partner who is willing to do those small things for you is far more likely to treat you with the same kindness in the big things. It is not a guarantee, of course, but it is helpful. Think of it as training for your partner, and let them do it. Accept it as a sign of their love and devotion for you rather than an insult to your independence.
Gentlemen, please be gentlemen. And ladies, please let them!