I worked retail for years, and by years I mean, ten of them at least. I was trying to figure it out—it’s been a long time since I worked retail—and between the record store and the toy store and the clothing store and the two shoe stores…and the engraving place…oh, and there was the department store…yeah, at least ten. And then I went into food service.
My unglamorous work history has one thread that largely unites my various jobs; I have had to work with the public. I’ve seen them cranky, angry, delighted, I’ve watched couples get engaged, helped people celebrate sixty years of togetherness, prepared special orders for people with life-threatening allergies, and shoveled more Christmas presents into bags that I can dare to count. All that time, my objective was to do so nicely. With a smile. Whether I was feeling good, bad, or indifferent, I still mustered up the energy to say “please” and “thank you”, “congratulations” and “have a nice day”. At least I did so most of the time because—even though I am from New Jersey, which many people consider to be The Land that Decency Forgot—my parents raised me right.
Courtesy. Civility. Manners. They’re really pretty useful.
I had a conversation not too long ago with a friend who’s raising three kiddos, and they’re all toddlers so they’re in the primary stages of socialization. She’s teaching them to be polite, to say “sir” and “ma’am” and “please” and “thank you” in the appropriate places and at the appropriate times. She said, “I saw a TV show where a father and son were on, and the son said he didn’t think he needed to learn manners because he didn’t want to lower himself to someone else. And BAM! It hit me…manners aren’t about lowering yourself, they’re about showing respect to the people around you.”
For those who think that a display of manners is a display of weakness or inferiority, please bear this in mind: you’re doing it wrong. Manners are simply, as my friend said, a sign of respect. I see you, person, who is another sentient, living being, standing right in front of me, and I celebrate your inherent humanity. Where’s the debasement in that? (Hint: there is none.) We have become far too insular, and I’m not sure if it springs from our unhealthily grand sense of entitlement or our decreasing opportunities for genuine social interaction, or something else entirely. But, me? I find all this non-interactivity exhausting.
Humans are social creatures. We form families, we make friends, we live in societies. John Donne recognized this four hundred years ago when he said, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” The world is since a remade place, but some things hold as true now as they did then…we’re still talking about Shakespeare. Guy Fawkes is back in the news. And no man, no matter how you look at it, is an island. So, I’m rejecting insularity and taking civility back. I’ve had it with feeling that weird, numb tension you feel when you’re transacting; I want to look a stranger in the eye, smile and say, “Yes, please,” or, “No, no…after you,” or “Thank you very much.” And from now on, I will. If I’m the only person saying it, then at least I’ll have lived up to my end of the social deal. I can’t make people act how I’d like, and I’m sure I’ll get odd looks from my fair share of cashiers and unsuspecting neighbors, but then again, maybe I won’t. The funny thing about behaving nicely is, I think more people want to do it than you realize. All this time working with the public and I still think people are, in their cores, good. If you play nice, I will hazard a guess that they will follow. That’s what I’m doing, anyway. I’d love for you to join me.