The Lost Art of Courtesy

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'm reading Book Eight in G.A. Aiken's Dragon Kin series, Feel the Burn. This installment focuses on Kachka, a (rather fierce) human, and Gaius Lucius Domitus an Iron Dragon and the Rebel King. As always, it's an entertaining story of dragon shifters living in a world with two suns and many gods. This time, the war is religious rather than political and thus the carnage is commensurately greater. And, as always it’s a satisfying read that engages my intellect while satisfying my craving for a good story with interesting characters all the while providing grist for the mill of my blog. In Feel the Burn, Kachka is a daughter of the Steppes: rough-hewn, tough and no nonsense. Kachka and her sisters live close to the land in a society dominated by women. Men serve them and raise their children and there seems little purpose or desire for common courtesy. They don't have it and they don't miss it. On the other hand, Gaius is a king, a royal with a court and courtiers, where courtesy is an essential part of the comportment and decorum package. In Gaius' world, none can imagine an existence without the intricacies of court protocols. When these two ways of being collide, everyone feels the burn. 

So which world’s rules are right?  Are my teenaged children correct in thinking that courtesy is an overrated, outdated, useless convention of old farts like their parents? Are they right to assume that my husband and I have no idea how people live these days? Am I silly to try to teach them the tenets of basic courtesy?  To insist, to the best of my ability, that they adhere to the social mores of my time rather than their perceived reality of a world in which courtesy is passé?   No. No, I am not an anachronism. I do not spend my time thinking that, "Young people these days are going to hell in a hand basket."

I believe in courtesy as an essential tool of living in a relationship. With anyone. This includes strangers on the street and lovers with whom we share our souls. Courtesy is the magic bullet, the secret sauce, the "Open Sesame" of good behavior of all kinds. I can't think of a situation where a simple "Please," "Thank you," "After you," or an acknowledgement of another's existence with a non-committal "Good Day," is not appropriate. Also always appropriate is the appellation "Sir" or "Ma'am," the request to, "Excuse me" or "Pardon me" and the question, "How may I help you?"

None of these courtesies means that you like someone or want them to be your best friend. We can be courteous to anyone regardless of how we feel about them. There is no reason to stoop when we come to a low place. Take the high road. One thing my young sons have yet to learn is that excruciating courtesy is an excellent way to be quite obnoxious. Courtesy in the face of poor behavior only serves to make the bad boy or girl look churlish, mean and petty.

Nor should familiarity breed contempt in the form of shortcuts to courtesy. I see so many people--those I know and those I don't--fail to thank their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and close friends for the daily services we do for one another. Not me. I am scrupulous about acknowledging a service or a kindness. This includes at restaurants and stores, doctor's offices and gas stations. Because I never hesitate to inform a manager about bad service, I am equally meticulous about commending those who go above and beyond. I am quite put out when I'm not acknowledged in return. My husband and children are great about thanking me for cooking breakfast or dinner, or picking them up from a social event or going out of the path of my life to do something for them.  My husband was effusive in his thanks last week when I let him sleep in and I took his turn to drive the kids to school. It feels good to be appreciated. And it serves him well in return as it incents me to repeat the kindness.

Another advantage of courtesy is that it can effectively diffuse fights and what would otherwise be curt exchanges between my family members and me.  Courtesy is like taking a time out or ten deep breaths. It gives you room to act rather than react. It's also like a reset button on any interaction. Courtesy can diffuse and de-escalate a tense situation and transform an awkward encounter into a comfortable conversation.

Courtesy is classy, which has nothing to do with wealth or actual social standing. Class is a manner of being and behaving. A courteous person sweats class from their pores. If they were to sweat, that is, which they don't, of course. They glow, don’tcha know?  And as a courtesy, we pretend not to notice.

Courtesy is an essential element of a well-dressed man or woman, without which no one can be considered adequately groomed.  Courtesy, as Kachka grudgingly realizes toward the end of the book, makes the world a nicer place to live. Courtesy is one of the small pleasantries that makes living less ugly and more manageable. Courtesy reminds us that we are all humans sharing the same planet. Even if it takes a dragon king to teach a human daughter of the Steppes what's what and who's who. I’m not sure what it will take to teach two teenaged boys the same thing, but I’ll get back to you on that one.