Jon Sindell requests your kind attention to this piece about courtesy.
“None shall pass!” the Black Knight thunders in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The result: four hacked limbs and a woodland hike spoiled.
Abraham Lincoln once said: “Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield lesser ones though clearly your own.” On that bridge in the woods, Lincoln might have said, “After you, sir. And enjoy this fine day!”
Did Lincoln lack steel? The man converted the Civil War to a moral crusade to end slavery, and paid with his life. Pretty damned steely, if you ask me. But unlike the Black Knight’s sword, Lincoln’s steel was tempered with wisdom.
Where is the wisdom in the rude acts I see from my fellow men day after day? Drivers who speed up to prevent others from merging. Bus drivers and their passengers, store clerks and their customers, service providers and service recipients of all kinds, all withholding “please” and “thank you,” or squeezing them begrudgingly out of unsmiling faces. Drivers who cut off pedestrians in crosswalks, subway passengers who elbow others out of the way, social media commenters who hurl insults like rocks.
Why do we think manners are unmanly?
May I offer a thought or two? Thanks.
There must be a huge complex of reasons for our growing incivility, from the increasing fractiousness of an ever–more mobile society, to the erosion of society–wide norms of behavior, to the notion that old–fashioned good manners are … well, old–fashioned. Beyond these and other reasons, I would suggest that male American discourtesy is rooted partly in the competitiveness that most of us are indoctrinated with from birth on up, a competitiveness which whispers in our ears that if we yield to another in an implied contest to dominate physical space or to establish superior social status, we are losers undeserving of the epithet “Man.”
How sadly misguided. And how inconsistent with traditional forms of rugged manhood.
Consider machismo, a manhood code popularly misconstrued as requiring unyielding toughness to the point of belligerence. Far from despising courtesy, true machismo requires it. A venerable Spanish saying holds, “Lo cortés no quita lo valiente,” loosely translated as, `Courtesy doesn’t make you a wimp.’ Consider the samurai, some of the baddest badasses the world has ever known, men who observed an elaborate etiquette that forbade the giving of offense and required the giving of respect. Consider the centrality of courtesy to the chivalric ideal of the medieval European knights (the Black Knight excepted), and consider the formal courtesy of the American frontier gentleman, a rugged and courageous character who shied from neither the battlefield nor the dueling field.
I submit these paradigms not to conjoin violence with manhood—to the contrary, I feel that true manhood requires a commitment to non–violence—but to reassure the insecure among us that some of history’s toughest hombres thought nothing of bowing, deferring, and saying “sir,” “ma’am,” “please,” “thank you,” and “after you.” I’ll attach that “insecure” label to my own forehead for the too–many times when I responded to another man’s attempt to assert physical or hierarchical dominance with an equal and opposite reaction. My only plea in mitigation is that it’s hard to be courteous when the other guy isn’t.
Which is why I like to ask myself, “What Would Abe Do?”
Just smile, I suspect, and move on to important matters.
Thanks for reading.
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Photo: wikipedia-public domain
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