“It takes very little these days to stand out from the crowd. Sincere courtesy and simple kindness are like a bright light in a dark room.”
~ Lydia Ramsey, International business etiquette expert
Today is a fifth Monday, which means you get pot luck when it comes to a topic. I often use these breaks in my regular editorial calendar (see below) to promote the revival of personal handwritten notes, but today, I wanted to reflect on a notion I came across in reading a book by Clarence Ogle:
“Someone said that courtesy is the lubricant of human relationships.”
What an interesting and thought-provoking image! Its significance belies the rather old-fashioned tarnish around the word “courtesy.” It seems out of style, somehow—along with another important word, “civility,” which I'll talk about another time.
Let's start with some basic definitions
From Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, I found the following:
noun \ˈkər-tə-sē, British also ˈkȯr-\
- polite behavior that shows respect for other people
- something you do because it is polite, kind, etc.
Full definition of COURTESY
- behavior marked by polished manners or respect for others<courteous behavior>
- a courteous and respectful act or expression
- a general allowance despite facts: indulgence <hills are called mountains by courtesy only>
- consideration, cooperation, and generosity in providing something (as a gift or privilege); also: agency, means—used chiefly in the phrases through the courtesy of or by courtesy of or sometimes simply courtesy of
Its first known use was from the 13th century.The derivation of the word is said to be from the Middle English corteisie and from Anglo-French curteisie. Elsewhere, it is traced to the French word coeur, meaning heart. I rather like that last meaning.
- a substance (such as grease or oil) that causes something (such as a machine part) to be slippery and to move more smoothly
Full Definition of LUBRICANT
- a substance (as grease) capable of reducing friction, heat, and wear when introduced as a film between solid surfaces
- something that lessens or prevents friction or difficulty <a social lubricant>
Its first known use was in the 1820s. The derivation is said to be from the Latin word
Courtesy has never been more important!
I see courtesy as the most basic and primal kind of connection with other people, and surely sociologists and anthropologists could argue that it is even a survival skill, certainly a social survival skill, if not a physical one. In its role as a lubricant, it often does, indeed, smooth out the rough edges in our relationships and create space for trust and friendship to grow. As the word cloud above suggests, courtesy can encompass elements of so many other virtues: kindness, thoughtfulness, compassion, grace, sympathy, and generosity.
Using a spiritual lens to consider courtesy, it essentially embraces the Golden Rule, a prominent teaching in virtually every major religion. The Christian version from the teaching of Christ is, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” Here are some similar ideas espoused in other religions or philosophies (See http://www.thegoldenrule.net/quotes.htm):
- Commonsensism: A version of the golden rule put into modern, non-religious terms that some people live by is, “Treat people the way you'd like to be treated”.
- Buddhism: 560 BC, From the Udanavarga 5:18- “Hurt not others with that which pains yourself.”
- Judaism: 1300 BC, from the Old Testament, Leviticus 19:18- “Thou shalt Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
- Hinduism: 3200 BC, From the Hitopadesa- “One should always treat others as they themselves wish to be treated.”
- Zoroastrianism: 600 BC, From the Shast-na-shayast 13:29- “Whatever is disagreeable to yourself, do not do unto others.”
- Confucianism: 557 BC, From the Analects 15:23- “What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
Even if you take every moral or religious spin away from the significance of courtesy, we humans are hard-wired to respond positively when someone is courteous to us. From a purely selfish standpoint, being courteous—remember the word lubricant?—can “grease the skids” of your track towards recognition and success.
Courtesy's constant companions: respect and thoughtfulness
Perhaps one reason courtesy is such a valuable commodity is because it always co-exists with respect and thoughtfulness. Even when motives are selfish, it is virtually impossible to exhibit courtesy without giving thought for the other person's situation, and doing so usually results in showing respect. I've quoted my friend Lydia Ramsey at the top of this post, because she knows more about the importance of courtesy and etiquette than anyone else I know. She agreed with me in linking courtesy with the universal sentiments of respect and kindness when she wrote, “It never ceases to amaze me as I travel back and forth halfway across the world from Savannah, GA, (USA) to Bangalore, India…that while cultures, customs and traditions may vary greatly, people basically are the same. Courtesy, kindness and respect for others remain the standard worldwide.”
The uncommon stands out
As Lydia's opening quote reveals above, another reason courtesy is such a valuable commodity is because it's more rare than it should be. Use this to your advantage. Resolve to be even more courteous than you already are (I know readers of Heartspoken are going to be far more courteous than most.). You will enjoy it, and as you create your own light in the darkness, you'll also be basking in its glow.
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