Friday, April 5, 2013

In Praise of Courtesy

Recently I was talking to a man who expects the Messiah to return this April. About halfway into our chat he thanked me for being “courteous.” This struck me as a strange thing to say, since I had asked for the interview. Evidently he was accustomed to journalists adopting a condescending or mocking tone.
That’s not an approach I approve of, and not just because it’s ineffective. I like to think I am a fairly polite individual. This is not down to any innate moral virtue, but because, when I was a child, my parents instilled in me near-Victorian codes of public behavior. If I were on a bus and a grown-up arrived, I had to surrender my seat; if adults were in the room I had to sit quietly; and if I were strolling on the sidewalk with a lady then it was my duty to walk on the outside lest she be spattered with mud from a passing car.

Whether or not I obeyed these rules all the time, I definitely learned them, and thanks to my folks I know how to make a good impression. Sometimes I meet people after arranging an interview over the phone and they are shocked to see that I am in my 30s and not a member of an older, allegedly more refined, generation.
Meanwhile, by sheer virtue of being British, my language is peppered with please andthank you and other more elaborate structures of courtesy. This caused a problem for me when I moved to Russia in the 1990s, as politeness was essentially non-existent there. Shopkeepers and officials were often shockingly rude, and I struggled for a long time before accepting that the correct way to attract the attention of the 58 year old battleaxe in my local bakery was indeed by barking Dyevushka! (Girl!) at her.
This was a big culture gap, but I got the hang of this new etiquette. Indeed, soon I had stripped my language down to the minimalistic handful of imperatives and grunts used by Muscovites in shops and restaurants.
Eight years later I was out with a Russian friend and he commented on my spectacular rudeness in his language. I thought I was just giving as good as I got; he thought I sounded like an aggressive swine. On the other hand, he was from Kazakhstan, and they are more courteous down there.
I’m told that these days customer service in Moscow is a bit better. As for me, I now live in Texas where almost everybody is incredibly courteous. This is especially true in small towns and rural areas, where it’s sir and ma’am all the time, even from the meth-heads. Now if I were back home in Scotland and somebody addressed me that way
I’d think he was nuts, or being ironic, or from the north, where people are more conservative. Even so, I adjusted to Texas etiquette pretty quickly; in some ways I have ascended to higher levels of courtesy, as unlike actual cowboys I still remove my hat when I’m indoors.
Of course, it’s a common complaint that politeness is dying out. This lament is as old as mankind, but given the popularity today of cruel reality TV shows, people perhaps feel this decline in manners more acutely. In the US we have a particularly unhinged media, dominated by strident “progressives” and “conservatives” who hurl abuse at each other 24 hours a day.
At first I found the vitriol entertaining, but now I think it’s boring, monotonous and bad for the country. The frequent demonization of opponents has left otherwise intelligent people unable to conceive that honest differences of opinion exist. In the world of rhetorical extremism the “other side” is always evil, deranged, or stupid.
Veteran media hands complain that this is a new phenomenon. Perhaps, but right now I am reading a book about William Brann, a 19th century journalist who became internationally famous for the inventive vituperations he directed at the Baptists in Waco, Texas. Eventually one of the people he offended shot him.  And that’s not all: America’s most famous print journalist, HL Mencken is primarily remembered for his put-downs; political pamphlets of the 18th century were spectacularly abusive; during the Reformation Martin Luther delighted in vitriol; Juvenal’s satires, composed in the 1stand 2nd centuries AD are positively acidic.
Public utterance has always had room for nastiness, then. I have hurled a fair amount of invective myself over the years, though I try only to aim at powerful targets and not “civilians.” In person at least I am always polite. Is that hypocrisy? If so, consider it the tribute vice pays to virtue, but I actually think the rules are different in a journalistic context. Even if they’re not, I at least try to make my invective amusing.
Either way, as the New Year dawns, I find myself reflecting on courtesy and wish that in 2013 all my readers might encounter more of it. After all, it makes everyday life so much more tolerable, doesn’t it?