An essay in the book Creative Spirit Musings
On a recent visit to England I was struck by the polite tenor of many of the conversations I was party to. After a while I began to reflect on why I found it so noticeable. It's not that Americans are rude by nature. We are a nation of overgrown puppy dogs in a way; friendly and outgoing if rather brash. This was epitomized a few years ago by a wonderful lady in Washington, DC who gave Queen Elizabeth II a big hug while that royal personage was touring a local school. The Queen stiffened like a board at the untoward familiarity. I always recall this news item with impish pleasure. After all, some people can use having the stuffing squeezed out of them every now and then.
Going back to the issue of polite conversation, I think we Americans can profit from taking an inventory of our speech patterns. While we may not be intentionally rude, our standards have fallen far in the last few decades. The best of us sometimes suffer from an excess of casualness that borders on the flip. The worst of us, sadly, have dropped the concept of courtesy altogether, and converse in language that is not only disrespectful, but demeaning to boot.
Christians can lead the way in restoring civility to private conversation as well as public discourse. Treating others with deference, young and old alike, conveys esteem for their person, which results in their feeling good about themselves. This generates a positive cycle of influence. Polite behavior also has a way of bringing calm to a tense situation. Courtesy keeps its temper, so it can head off arguments before they begin, or at least mitigate them before they escalate.
Since children imitate their parents' patterns, the job of speaking respectfully begins at home. One of the trends in our culture that dismays me is the intensification of the verbal battle between the sexes. Male-bashing is so generally engaged in by American females that I wonder how any of them can attract good husbands and raise strong sons. There is no place in a Christian's vocabulary for disparaging comments directed against anyone based on gender, color, creed, appearance, political leanings, and so on. Is this how we love our neighbors? No; we love them by showing that we recognize their eternal value as God's creations and choosing words that are consistent with this point of view.
In England, standards of formality become more and more stringent the higher up the social scale one goes, which is why hugging the Queen is never really correct. In America, we have a much flatter, less hierarchical social system, but courtesy never goes amiss no matter who is addressing whom. For instance, when a waiter in a restaurant greets a table of customers with "what can I get you guys?" it betrays poor social judgment. Nobody over college age should ever be addressed in this manner. Keeping a genteel distance by adopting a slightly more formal approach ("Good evening, ladies. May I take your order?") has nothing to do with servility or class divisions and everything to do with good manners and respect.
"Miss," "Madam," and "Sir" are terms that might be dusted off and used more frequently. I applaud establishments like Tom Thumb [my local grocery store] that have taught their checkers to address customers as "Mr. Smith" or "Ms. Jones." I deplore doctors’ offices that allow their staff to address patients, even elderly ones, by their first names, as though they were children or pets. More people are offended by this usage than you might imagine. But no one is offended when they are treated with respect and kindness. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, and graciousness must be showered in the same unconditional way.
Our national inclination towards informality has had grievous effects on our culture at large. Where there are no hard and fast standards, vulgarity has wormed its way out of the outhouse and into the living room. If you have a TV, you know this. Nothing is sacred. Without the boundaries drawn by consideration for others, personal privacy is at risk (ask any celebrity who's had their picture taken through a telephoto lens); modesty is derided; and important public issues are bandied about with a total lack of gravitas.
Let's try to raise our consciousness around this issue and see if we as Christians can't lead the way towards creating a more caring society, by speaking words of charity and respect.