POLITENESS

DEFINITION

Politeness

  • A courteous manner that respects accepted social usage
  • The act of showing regard for others


It seems to me, that sometime in the last few years we have lost something important in society. People seem to be ruder, more impolite, more aggressive than they used to be. Why do you think that is? I notice a distinct lack of care for everyone else; we seem to be so caught up in our own lives that we have lost the ability to be polite to other people. Getting on and off public transport, in public places, at work, in the pub, in fact everywhere.
It doesn’t cost anything to be polite, but somehow it doesn’t seem to matter to people. “Manners maketh the man,” my mother used to say, which I can’t wholeheartedly agree with, but it does help us all get on a bit easier.

It seems that manners and being polite are not built in to nature, in that we are not born with these attributes. These are things we have learned from our parents, from teachers, and from observing others behaviour. So, if they are not inbuilt, why do we need them? Why do we have to be polite just because someone says that it is the acceptable thing to do? Why do we need to give up our seat for a disabled person on the tram, or hold a door for someone? Why should I? But the question I want to ask is, why shouldn’t you?

If no one had told you you should be polite, would you be rude or obnoxious? I want to understand this with you. If it is not in my nature to be polite, does that mean that Man as a species is an unthinking uncaring animal only concerned with himself? Well as we can see from life today, that answer would have to be a resounding “yes.”

It is only through the will of those who have shaped society that we have learned these social skills. Why else would we polite when it is not in our nature? Our parents are polite, so we mimic them. Our parents are rude, so we mimic them. When we are growing up, we are influenced by our role models who are our parents, our teachers, and our peers. We don’t “know” if being polite is right or wrong, anymore than we know if being impolite is right or wrong. We just learn from those around us. It is only in later life we can see if we conform to the norm. Do you understand?

If everyone else is being obnoxious and rude to everyone in the street and I am being polite, does it make me a better person than they are? No of course not, it just means that I am not conforming to the behaviour of the majority. It is neither right or wrong.

If I understand what it is to have compassion, love and empathy for my fellow man, do I not treat him differently? Am I not courteous, not because I have learned to be, but merely because I want to help my fellow man, because he is my brother?

All of this may seem like a load of old nonsense to some of you who might be saying “some people are polite, some people are rude, that’s just the way it is, accept it.” But all I accept is that if it is not in my biological nature, because “politeness” is a man-made concept, then we have to start looking deep inside our minds. We have to start to become aware of ourselves in relationship with others, because politeness cannot exist in isolation. It only comes into being when I am in relationship with another.

It’s like a dance

I guess many hundreds of years ago (when there was a fraction of the number of people on the planet that there are now), we didn’t have this problem. We were surrounded by family and kinship groups, we had love for them and we treated them accordingly. We would not have needed any formal method of dealing with them. That is not to say we didn’t argue or fight with them but that is not of concern to us here.

As time went on, the population increased dramatically, and with the rise of agriculture, cities were born, where all of a sudden we were thrown together with many thousands of people we did not know. That process has continued until now we have up to twenty million people living in one city. That is an awful lot of people to get to know!

So now we are surrounded by strangers, and we need some way to interact with them to show we are friendly, and not aggressive, so we invent a way of behaving that shows them some regard. Politeness is born. By creating a way of behaving that is always friendly to people, we reduce the chance of conflict, which is highly likely in cities bursting with people!
“What are you looking at!”
“Nothing, I’m sorry.”
“Good!”

If we didn’t know how to show people some positive regard (even if it is false) so they don’t take offence can you imagine the misunderstandings and conflict that would be going on! I am polite to you, you are polite to me, I am polite to her, she is polite to me.

“I like your dress it is very nice” (actually I hate it, it’s awful). “Oh that dinner was lovely” (it was the worst thing I’ve ever tasted). And we extend it to friends as well. “Your house is lovely” (who did they get to decorate it, a blind man).

But we keep on being polite, afraid to offend anyone with our comments, so in a way we lie. We do not offer our true selves, and we cover it up with some clever language and learned behaviour. It is false, but it saves us from trouble! So we dance around each other. I take one step, you take two steps, back step, front step, being careful not to tread on each others toes!

So we have two types of politeness. We have verbal, and we have physical action, but as we have seen, it is merely a social tool which we use to cover our authentic selves. That is not to say that some people really do mean it.
“But I do like it.”
“Come on, you’re just being polite.”
“No, really, I do.”

Unfortunately, we have got ourselves in a bit of a tangle with all this politeness stuff because now we don’t really know who means it, and who’s just acting polite so as not to cause offence! Of course, some people aren’t polite at all, and we take offence to this. We blame the mother, and we blame a lack of education, but it’s not that they are rude (lacking civility or good manners) they just haven’t learned the dance steps. They are, unfortunately much closer to displaying their authentic selves than those of us engaged in the dance. When they don’t like something or someone they show it, when they are angry they show it, often in public. Those of us engaged in the dance are horrified. We want something done about this lack of courtesy.

“Excuse me young man, could I possibly have a seat, I have a very painful back.”
“Fuck off granddad.”
“Charming! What a rude young man, someone should teach you some manners.”
“Yeah, whatever.”

Many people have been saying that people are getting ruder and less thoughtful than they used to be, but maybe the dance isn’t being taught as much anymore. You see, the new dance is a solo affair and it is being encouraged all the time by those in power. We are told that thinking about “me” is good. My money, my things, my life. We are too busy to worry about other people. So what if I cause offence? “Fuck you.” I won’t see you again, there are way too many people in the city for that.

And that’s just it, isn’t it? In the old days, when we lived in small tribal groups we would see people all the time. We couldn’t walk around anonymously as we do now. These were people we would see every day, so being rude to them and getting away with it wasn’t an option.

It’s a shame, but I thought when I started this discussion with you, that we would find out after all, that politeness was in some way inherent in our nature as humans, but I see now that it’s all just a cover – a way of showing others in society you are engaged in the same dance they are. We are not like it at all. It is not in my nature to hold a door open for an old lady, but something I have learned to do in order to be accepted by the majority. Unless…
I have observed myself. I understand I am always in relationship with others. I have awareness. I understand I am not an individual but part of the whole. I understand I am as much part of my neighbour as he is of me. I do not need to cover up. I do not need to lie. I am compassionate towards him. I love him as a brother. Why would I not help him if he needed it? I understand I do not need to learn how to behave from others, just to understand my relationship to all things.

When I understand the connection, we no longer have need for clever social tools. Let me ask you one final question, why would I not help my brother? Why would I be unkind to my brother, or hurt him with my words? After all, he is my brother.


by alan macmillan orr

‘the natural mind – waking up’

2009

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