Monday, October 4, 2010

On Courtesy

 Nothing is ever lost by courtesy. It is the cheapest of the pleasures, costs nothing and conveys much. It pleases him who gives and him who receives, and thus, like mercy, it is twice blessed. 
Erastus Wiman [1834-1904], Canadian journalist

If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers, it shows he is a citizen of the world, and that his heart is no island cut off from other lands, but a continent that joins to them. 
—Francis Bacon [1561-1626]. English philosopher & scientist.

One of the orphans of a electronic communications age is courtesy. This is particular striking, given the various ways and modes of communication we have at our disposal today. Yet, today's communication technologies has become almost a means of closing or, at least, limiting intimate or close communication between people. Such is one school of thought.

People respond to emails, phone calls, and letters only when it suits them. Inconvenience is not cool. The key word in modern time-management language is prioritize. So, the trick is to respond only to requests for your time (and attention in some cases) based on what one deems as important.

And that's the key. Importance is usually given to those types of personal correspondence that advances a career or public standing. The letters, electronic or otherwise, that a receiver finds a nuisance, or those that have no immediate benefit to career or public image are deleted or thrown in the trash.

This might sound counter-productive in an age of social networking, where people ardently use Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, to build networks and community. But the modes of communications have changed. It is more fashionable to post on the wall in a group message than to speak personally, which has the limitation of reaching only one person. Community for the most part is counted by the number of friends or connections you have. That is in itself telling.

Even so, I have said in previous writings that I support the Internet, as it has done much good. To be sure, the Internet and its associated technologies have expanded the reach of individuals, and increased the access of information, previously limited to a few. (It has allowed blogs, like this one, to reach as many people who hold similar interests and who have access to a computer or mobile phone.)

The Internet, however, has shrunk time, and our ability to focus intently on one thing. The technology has changed the ways humans think, says Nicholas Carr in a 2008 article in The Atlantic Monthly: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Undoubtedly so, Yet, what is forgotten in the haste to clear your in-box, or voice-mail messages is that a real person took the time and effort to draft that letter or make that phone call. (Personal disclosure: I attempt to respond to all emails, letters and phone calls within a few days of receipt.) So, what does deleting that letter or throwing it in the trash say? Too much. One of the arguments given is, "I do not have time to respond to each email or letter."

Steady Correspondent: Eleanor Roosevelt, former First lady of the United States: "As for accomplishments, I just did what I had to do as things came along."
Courtesy: US Federal Government, White House portrait, public domain image from
Even so, we ought to fight against that tendency of following the path of least resistance, and return to old-fashioned courtesy and consideration, which are the superiour values we hold as a society. That is how real friendships are nurtured. And that is how social skills are developed, by communicating individually and intimately.

I would like to return to a period before modern communication technologies became ever-present, to the 1940s. Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady of the United States during the Great Depression, received an enormous amount of letters:
During her first year in the White House, Mrs. Roosevelt received 300,000 pieces of mail from adults and children. She continued to receive hundreds of thousands of letters in the years that followed.
The First Lady had a secretary who was in charge of the mail. Her secretary would read the mail and either reply to it or send it to another department for action. She would also select about 50 letters a day for Mrs. Roosevelt to read. The First Lady would sometime dictate replies to those letters.
The important point is that Mrs. Roosevelt, despite her importance and position, read 50 letters a day, and responded to some of them. The responses were by no means long, but a response was drafted and sent. Can you imagine that happening today? Can you imagine that an important and influential politician, businessperson, or celebrity responding to an average person?

It's unlikely, which says much about the level of courtesy in today's society. The intent here is not to act as a public scold, but to think, remind and reflect about the human condition and human dignity. As humans, we have the ability to change for the common good, but only if we deem values like courtesy as important. "Life is not so short but that there is always time for courtesy," Emerson said.

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