The (Almost) Lost Art of Polite

Leaving the bank, I sensed someone behind me. I walked through the heavy door, then held it open for an elderly man who was slowly making his way toward the door. “I’m not helpless,” he groused. “Of course not,” I replied, “I’m just being polite.”

rude_polite_rankingPolite isn’t popular anymore. A friend who observed by husband opening the car door for me, as he has for decades, sniffed, “Are you so weak you can’t open that door yourself?” If my husband didn’t have the keylock, I would have reached across and unlocked his door for him, too.

It’s kind to help people who have mobility issues, but the small acts that make up being polite are truly an art that makes the world a bit shinier and easier to manage.

Polite is hard to explain to small children. They stare at the handicapped, ask intrusive questions, and are sticklers for the “truth” as they see it. If we are lucky, they get socialized and develop the habit of being polite. But it’s slipping away, faster and faster.

When I bump into anything–even inanimate objects, I say, “Excuse me,” or “I’m sorry,” as a force of habit. A teen looked at me in the grocery store when I apologized to a grocery cart and muttered, “Dude, it’s like a thing! It can’t hear you.” True. But it might have been a person.

I let pregnant women ahead of me in line because I remember what it felt like to stand on swollen feet. When I was in D.C. two weeks ago, no one looked up from the seats clearly marked “for Senior Citizens and the handicapped,” and I did not have the nerve to pull out their headphones so I could ask for the seat. Why not? Because I didn’t think they would move.

Being polite means saying that an ugly baby is adorable, sending thank-you cards, and attending funerals of people you don’t know well. It’s saying “thank you” to a cashier who isn’t polite.  Not walking three abreast down a sidewalk and forcing other people to step into the street. If you are a bicyclist, it’s stopping at signs and lights instead of blowing through them or yelling “on your left” when someone is using the sidewalk for walking, then passing them at top speed, just nipping their elbow.

Polite is not throwing your co-working under the bus just because you can and no one will stand up to you. Bring back polite, and the whole concept of bullying shrinks and vanishes. Best of all, it doesn’t cost a thing and takes little effort.

–Quinn McDonald still says “you’re welcome” when someone says, “thank you.” She doesn’t want them to think for a minute that they might have been a problem.



37 thoughts on “The (Almost) Lost Art of Polite

  1. My (relatively new) boyfriend opens car doors for me, even when I’m the one driving. Sometimes I’m mildly impatient with waiting for him, but it’s such a charming reminder that he cherishes me … and he backs it up by his consistency in all areas of our relationship. He also puts my shoes on me, which at first was disconcerting, especially because it was my skanky walking shoes. It is difficult, but a good exercise, to be gracious … to allow oneself to have these attentions shown.

  2. Pingback: Link Round-Up » Pierced Wonderings

  3. Perhaps the rest of the country could adopt the Southern phrase that can be used in so many ways: “Bless his/her/their heart(s)” I’ve heard it as an honest reaction to something silly or tragic; but also as a snarky comment in reaction to something rude or stupid. In the latter use, it brings a big grin to my face because the rude/stupid one rarely hears the sarcasm!

  4. It’s one reason we’ll stay in Oklahoma forever despite the weather and increasing number of earthquakes: everyone is friendly and polite. Children still mostly say yes ma’am and no ma’am; people hold doors, help with packages, give you their chair and say hello to strangers. Their reactions in tragedies are heroic and inspiring, but it’s the everyday niceness that makes this place a great place to call home.

  5. Oh my goodness, I’m so glad I’m not the only one to apologize to chairs, corners, and cereal boxes! This morning I apologized to a little bug that I inadvertently washed away as I was cleaning the bird bath. I know that this tendency can be seen by some as silly or useless, but I think that the intention to be conscious of the special existence of even inanimate objects,
    is an extension of being aware of the specialness of our fellow humans. And to treating everyone/thing with compassion.

  6. I was happy to see the two Carolinas in the top of the list of polite states. Like you, Quinn, I say excuse me to everything – including the cat, or whatever I happen to bump into. Most Southerners have politeness drilled into them from childhood. As Tracey said in her comment, having a wheelchair-bound family member shows a lot of people’s true character. My husband is confined to a wheelchair and I’ve occasionally struggled to open a door while maneuvering the chair into the doorway while able-bodied people stand by and watch. Bless those who help !!! And remember that Captain Kangaroo considered “Please” and “Thank You” the Magic Words !!

    • When I had knee surgery and had to use a cane to walk, I got my eyes opened as to how buildings are not constructed for the handicapped and how helpful (and rude) people could be.

  7. Thank you for this timely word. Courtesy is something that usually reaps a huge reward for minimal effort. One of my favorites is telling telephone customer service individuals that they have rendered Superior Customer Service; they are so happy, I can hear them smile.

  8. Good topic. Children learn politeness from their parents and grandparents….therefore, if those role-models aren’t polite, the child pretty much doesn’t have a chance. I once read that “Having good manners often includes ignoring someone’s bad manners.” When you think about it, that’s so true! Another way of thinking about it is that someone’s bad manners says everything about them and nothing about anyone else.

  9. I love all your posts but this one really struck home.

    I completely agree with you. I always try and help people and say thank you to harried cashiers.

    It would make a kinder, gentler world if people would remember to be kind.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  10. I think politeness is like gratitude, it’s additive, the more you give, the more you get. I find a lot of people to be very polite. I recently broke my wrist and the kindness of strangers was amazing, if I asked for help people were so kind and willing to help! Sure there are rude people, but I find many more to be kind and polite! Thanks for making the world a better place Quinn and reminding all of us to always be polite and kind to others.

    • You are right, and I hadn’t thought of it before: politeness is like gratitude, the more you give, the more you see and get. Which is wonderful. And accepting help is a gift for others.

  11. Very well said! If the world would just make the Golden Rule their priority daily, it would be almost heaven! I enjoy your posts.

  12. Why would anyone be rude to someone who is being polite? That is beyond my comprehension on every level and fortunately I have not run into it, not that I can recall. Then again, why would a friend be condescending when your husband is being polite by opening your car door? Jealousy would be my guess.

    Growing up all my life with a disabled father, who was often in his wheelchair, gave me a different perspective on helping people. Someone in a wheelchair appreciates it if you hold a door open for them or let them go ahead of you to use the handicap bathroom stall.

    I will never give up being polite or stoop to someone else’s negative level. Even if someone doesn’t appreciate my politeness, at least I know I did the right thing to make the world a better place. I admit, I do have an issue being polite or quiet when other people are completely rude and inconsiderate, e.g. walking three abreast a sidewalk. I absolutely refuse to step into the street so it gets interesting at times.

    I will remain polite but also stand by my convictions, when needed.

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