Friday, November 23, 2012

Common courtesies: social behaviors every adult should know

Courtesy is the art of treating everyone, from friends to strangers, with kindness. Unfortunately it seems to be a dying art, considering how many people don't know -- or just don't bother to follow -- the most common courtesies.

Maybe you think courtesy is stilted and unnatural, and you just want to be free to do whatever you like. But if you do so, you're not really fit for social living. Human societies create manners and rules of etiquette not to cause stress, but to ease social friction, making it simpler for large numbers of people to live together peacefully. So unless your future job description is "mountain man," "bunker inhabitant" or "castaway," you need to follow these rules.

Arrive on time. This is a tough one for people like me, who are world-class procrastinators. It can also be a challenge for the rare group of people who perpetually arrive early. But both extremes are rude, and in most cases they can be avoided with a little planning. Remember, adults are honest, and that also means keeping your word about being where and when you say you'll be. If you are unavoidably detained, send a message explaining why.

Leave on time. When the party's over, the dishes are washed and put away, and the host is sweeping up, don't be that one person who lingers behind like the smell of a chili toot (and is just as unwelcome). Go home, and let other people get some sleep.

Return things you borrow.

In a crowded situation, be prepared to give up your seat to the elderly, the infirm and the pregnant. If for some inexplicable reason someone gets angry at you for offering up your seat because he or she does not fit one of these categories, you may respond with, "I'm sorry. You just looked tired and I thought you might want to rest for a while."

Open the door or keep it open for the person behind you. Again, occasionally you will run across someone who has an illogical aversion to this act of thoughtfulness. Don't let it dissuade you; people can be funny creatures. "I certainly didn't want to let the door slam shut in your face" is an acceptable response to anger in the face of this courtesy. And if someone opens the door for you, be sure to thank him or her.

Do not touch other people without their express permission. Common violations of this rule include (but are not limited to): patting a pregnant woman's belly, rubbing a bald man's head, playing with another person's hair, or -- yech -- grabbing at breasts, butts or crotches. You may not be able to help coming in contact with a stranger in a standing-room-only situation, but even then, remember what you should've learned in kindergarten and keep your hands (and other body parts) to yourself.

Know and practice your movie theater etiquette. 'Nuff said.

Dress for the occasion. Too much of modern society seems to believe you can sling on jeans and a T-shirt and go anywhere. Wrong. Certain events -- weddings, funerals, church attendance, live theater, formal dinners -- require a bit more sartorial finesse. You don't have to look like you've stepped off the pages of Vogue, but gentlemen, get a real tailored suit/ladies, get a neutral-color dress that looks great on you, and dress up. Changing the way you look really does change the way you feel and act. It's almost magical.

Return phone calls and messages. Taking the time to respond to queries, even with a single sentence, shows a measure of thoughtfulness to others. And it's a lot less difficult to find the time to do this than it used to be, now that nearly everyone carries a cell phone. Oh, and by the way...

Cell phones are not to be used indiscriminately. I know, they're portable and they do seem to ring everywhere, but that doesn't mean it's socially acceptable to have a phone or text conversation in the middle of a checkout line, during a face-to-face conversation with a friend, in a movie theater, in the middle of class, while driving, in the library, or (worst of all) in a public restroom. And do not use your electronic pacifier as a way of detouring around real life. Engage! It's a lot more interesting than yet another round of Angry Birds.

Don't pick your nose in public. It's just gross. You are, however, allowed to carry a handkerchief or tissues and discreetly blow your nose if needed (except at the table). If for some reason your tortured soul cannot be at peace until that nasal nugget is gone, relocate your excavation efforts to a restroom stall or other place where you will not be observed. Be aware that nosebleeds are an occupational hazard. And please, wash your hands when you're done.

Don't spit in public. If you really need to expectorate, find a restroom and spit in the sink. Don't just hock up a big green slug on the sidewalk; that's disgusting, not to mention unhygienic.

Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. The Centers for Disease Control suggest that if you don't have a tissue at the ready, you should cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm, not into your hands. (Shaking hands with someone directly afterward can be a cringe-inducing experience.)

If you must smoke, use an ashtray.  Don't just dribble ash everywhere -- and when you're driving, don't fling your spent cigarette butts out the window.  It's disgusting, hazardous, and makes you look like the sort of life form that scuttles for cover when someone hits the light switch.

Don't go naked in public. (You'd think this wouldn't need to be pointed out, but the recent shenanigans of San Franciscans have made me reconsider.) Under normal circumstances, spontaneous public nudity is reserved for small children and the mentally infirm. Unless you're one of these two, stay clothed. Yes, yes, you have a glorious body and must share it with the world... whatever. We're not discussing your rights nor your personal aesthetic merits, but common courtesy. Most people in North America are uncomfortable with public nudity, whether the nude in question is an Adonis or an embarrassment. So button it up. Please. If a special someone really wants to see you naked, I'm sure that person will find a way to let you know.

When you make a request or give an order, take the time to say "please" and "thank you." These two small phrases manage to convey thoughtfulness and respect for others who, after all, are doing something for you. They can create huge social benefits from a minuscule time investment.

Don't gossip; it's caustic. Is it necessary? Is it true? Is it kind? If it doesn't follow all three rules, it's gossip. YOU CAN RUIN PEOPLE'S LIVES with this crap. So don't do it.

Don't swear within earshot of children. (This rule used to apply to women as well, but it was crafted in a day when women were routinely referred to as "the fairer sex." Since some feminists consider this thoughtful act of gentility to be somehow demeaning to them, I've set it aside.) Likewise, please refrain from discussing your illicit drug use, your sexual exploits, or the joy you find in killing small animals, at least while children are listening. Some people might argue that children are exposed to vulgarity and profanity by grade school anyway, so there's no harm done. I would counter that most children are also exposed to nudity (their own or others') by that age, but that doesn't give you carte blanche to strip and run naked through a kindergarten class.

If you're angry at a person or situation, don't make someone else suffer for it. This covers a whole range of behaviors from verbal cruelty to full-out physical abuse. If you've got to take your frustrations out on something, go to the source of the problem and work it out. Or get a punching bag. That's what they're for.

When you've done something wrong, apologize. No, we're not talking about fake apologies like "I'm sorry you didn't understand" or "Well, I'm sorry, but it wasn't my fault!" or any of that crap. We're talking real, face-the-person, look-right-in-the-eyes, sincere apology. Being able to admit (and, when possible, atone for) your mistakes is the first step toward ensuring you won't make the same mistake twice. And it's a huge sign of personal maturity.

Know any other common courtesies I've left off this list? (I'm sure I have.) Let me know, and I'll add them in.


  1. This is great. I wish everyone would read it, and apply it.

  2. You could add - hand written thank you notes.

    1. That's a good point. I've already written an article about thank-you notes, but I should link it here.

  3. You could add:

    Physical boundaries: if you bump/kick someone apologize and don't do it again. Most people don't like their heads or faces touched except by a significant other or best friend. Personal space bubbles are important too, both around people and their property. It is inappropriate to lounge around and take up large amounts of space in another person's home.

    Emotional boundaries: If someone asks you to stop doing something, and the request is reasonable, don't tell them they are being too sensitive or their request doesn't matter. Just stop while you're with them and continue at home.

    Never comment on someone's food intake in public, especially at celebrations, and especially if you are going to eat just as much (or more) than they are. You may see my Christmas dessert binge, but what you don't see is the celery I eat for three meals a day for that whole week so I CAN eat those desserts. If you are concerned about an obese person's food intake, only talk to them about it if they are a very close friend or family member, and only do so in private and if you know that this is a common bad habit. Telling long-lost uncle Joe to cut back on the bon bons at the annual family reunion doesn't count.

    1. All excellent points. Thank you for sharing them!