February 21, 2009

Thought for 02.21.09

To demand courtesy is to rob courtesy of its meaning.

—Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Erika Baker said...

But how else do you teach courtesy?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

By example, I think.

Erika Baker said...

Yeees.... my children needed more than an example... and I often do too...I get so wrapped up in myself that it takes people to spell things out...

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Oh, I think gentle instruction is fine, too. I'm just suspicious of the crossover from instruction to demand. Seems to me there is also a difference between being non-courteous and discourteous. Not knowing how to show respect is not the same thing as showing disrespect.

But I was really more concerned about the other side of the equation. People who are truly great evoke respect in others. A prima donna will instead demand it, and receive only a half-hearted and forced courtesy.

Brother David said...

To demand courtesy is to be discourteous.

Erika Baker said...

Ah, respect, yes. But that's maybe not the same as courtesy. I have to be curteous even to those I do not respect.

And even a prima donna has the right to ask me to be curteous, whereas respect can truly not be demanded but has to be earned or a gift.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Ah, Erika, you are talking to an [adopted] New Yorker here!

I think Dahveed is on to what I'm talking about. It's the demand side I'm concerned about -- I suppose I was thinking of the Pharisees who insist on being deferred to -- not the courteous side, which will indeed show deference even when the person expecting it may not really deserve it. It just seems to me that real courtesy (not simply perfunctory bowing and scraping) is a kind of social gift. So yes, I will be courteous even to someone I might not respect -- but if someone demands courtesy they've treated it as something owed to them.

Perhaps the point is too fine for its own good -- but Dahveed's phrasing is what I was getting at.

Erika Baker said...

Then I have often been discourteous.

When people have attacked me on the blogs or in my private life, I have stood up and asked for courtesy, and for personal insults to cease because they are hurtful and do not further the conversation.

But I don't know that I should feel that to have been entirely wrong. To accept any level of rudeness without at least mentioning that it is hurtful means to have doormat written all over you.

This cannot be what turning the other cheek means.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Ah, Erika. The penny finally dropped. I think we have been at cross purposes.

I think it is perfectly fine to let people know when they are being rude. I see now that could be understood as "demanding courtesy" but that isn't what I meant. I was thinking not of the kind of courtesy that is legitimately expected, but of the more freely given kind -- and of course that will vary from culture to culture, considerably. Courtesy as a gift, not an expectation. I realize now that is a dangerous word with shades of meaning from the expected to the freely given. I was thinking of the latter sort (as in, "courtesy call") not the former as in "common courtesy."

Sorry for the confusion. You have not been discourteous in calling others to account for their discourtesy -- unless you've been ungracious about it, which I do not think is true, from what I've seen!

Erika Baker said...

Now I understand! Thank you for your patience. One day I will finally understand the intricacies of the English language... here's hoping!

Bruno said...

to legislate morality, is to rob morality of its power

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Excellent corollary, Bruno. Thanks!

MarkBrunson said...

Don't demand courtesy, just TAKE IT!

No . . . wait . . .

Anonymous said...


I'm not sure I entirely agree.

Certainly legeslating courtesy doesn't seem to always work in personal cases. But it was once considered a matter of personal ethics and courtesy to openly disclose, for example, an investment advisor's potential conflict of interest.

There was enough "abuse" that we have now, in fact, legislated what was once a courtesy. This legeslated courtesy seems to work much more effectively (and, I dare say, morally) than did the old system of voluntary courtesy. Another example might be that people once stood by their words in agreements, but we now require legeslation in the form of a "contract."

On a more personal level, I like to hold parties at my home. I just had my Shrove Sunday "Little Drummer Boy" party (where people are invited not to bring me a gift, but to bring their own personal "gifts" and share them with the group. I had 80 "YES!" RSVPs, but only about 55 actually showed up. (I'm not counting the "MAYBE" responses; I don't mind if they don't show up: they haven't said "yes," after all.)

I've experienced this before in previous years, so I didn't, in fact, prepare food for 80; but, even so, I still have a lot left over and a good bit will be tossed in the trash (soup kitchens around here won't accept donations of food that are not packaged - another example of a legitimate need to legeslate courtesy). I could easily have been stuck with a LOT of wasted food. I don't know about you all, but wasting food is one of the deadliest sins in my family's morality.

One obvious solution is to simply not invite those who said yes and then didn't show up ever again. That seems a little drastic.

Alternately, I could just call them on it and let people know that real harm was done by not telling me that were not coming; but, at this stage, that seems a little persnikity and will certainly seem "judgemental" to some.

I also take issue with some of the parental guidance discussion. My parents tried to tell me WHY we are courteous when they were teaching me courtesy (spoons left in cups or bowls make them easier to spill, when dropping someone off waiting until they are in the house and the lights go on makes them feel and actually be safer as does walking the lady to her door); but I think that was just a way of making the instruction stick more effectively. They certainly were not just requesting that I be courtious, it was definitely a DEMAND ("you WILL walk the lady to the door or else...!" ; "Don't you ever let me hear of you addressing Dr Martin (a black man)or anyone else as "Martin" they way that fellow just did....)

My parents also taught me, often by example, that there is a limit to "mere" legalistic courtesy when a larger issue of courtesy (such as human rights) was at stake. I still remember when my mother got up out of the pew and walked to the front of the church during a sermon on white supremacy and delivered an anti-sermon right then and there.

She would not be disuaded and she would not give ground until she had shown that the interpretation of scripture that the preacher had offered was not only outright wrong (as scripture) but wrong morally and from the point of view of being a christian. She took him to task in no uncertain terms. A thing of courage for a woman in the 60s. Certainly a good many people thought that she was being discourteous (not to mention out of "her place").

I am not sure that courtesy can not be something we can and should DEMAND of one another as she DEMANDED the courtesy of human rights for others. It seemed to have a good effect at the time (albeit it certainly didn't win her or us kids any friends in sunday school).

I'm Bookguybaltmd at hotmail. Sorry, I can't seem to figure out how to get a profile on here.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Good points, Bookguy.

I wasn't thinking of the "training phase" so much as the imperious person who demands that you show them a courtesy that may not be due them. It seems to me that courtesy by its nature is something that is not actually required, even if it may be expected.

My firm belief, however, is that it is always best to show courtesy -- and that this is the proper way to evoke courtesy in others. To do as we would be done by. Naturally children need instruction in such a virtue as it doesn't come naturally.

Anonymous said...

I'm still not sure that we can't demand courtesy in some situations.

Yes, it's true, in some situations a demand is counter productive. It might be, for example, counter-productive to demand courtesy in the case of RSVPs to my party (though I'd still like to think that there must be a way to get people to toe that line).

In other (perhaps extream) cases, such as my mother's DEMAND (in absolutely no uncertain terms) that other human beings must have the courtesy of respect for their human rights, there does seem to be a legitimate place for a demand for fundamental courtesy.

I am certain that the preacher who was preaching segregation from the pulpet did not feel that the courtesy my mother was demanding on behalf of others was a courtesy that was "due" to either blacks or to her.

Certainly there were a good many people in the congregation that Sunday who, agree with her basic position or not, felt that my mother's demand for this courtesy was beyond mere imperiousness; she felt that was her necessary cross to bear. I do remember that this was one of the few times that she used "the look" on someone other than us kids (AKA: "the look" that could kill at 50 paces)

If there's a training phase for children, there seems to be a certain extent at which that training phase never ends; I think there is, sometimes, a need to train Adults, too. I am not at all sure that any of us ever outgrows the need for training on that subject. It's just a little hard to determine exactly where that training phase phases out.

Perhaps St Paul's discussion of pointing out sin to a member of the congregation is an appropriate guide here. I would say, however, that pointing out the sin privately to my mother's preacher was not likely to be an effective way of clearing up the error and harm he had been spreading to the congregation. Sometimes it's necessary to stand up immediately for what is right, courteously if possible, righteously if necessary.


Anonymous said...

Oh dear... As I look over what I posted I see so many typos and mispellings.... Next time I'll try to spellcheck at least. My apologies.


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Bookguy,
I sense we are dealing here with the range of meaning courtesy can have. For instance, while it overlaps with politeness, I think these are essentially different things. They may overlap more in their negatives: to be discourteous and to be impolite are quite similar, it seems to me.

But I'm trying to hold on to the sense of courtesy as being "not required" as in a courtesy call, something you do "as a courtesy" and not because it is either the norm or expectation. Perhaps I'm using to narrow an understanding of the word -- but that was the kind of courtesy I was referring to or thinking about in the initial thought. I would not, for example, substitute "politeness" in my original statement -- demanding someone be polite is not, it seems to me, to rob politeness of its meaning. So perhaps this is where we are finding a level of ambiguity.

Let me put this into a very "courteous" context. In chivalry, a nobleman who is knighted is considered a "Knight of Justice" -- as opposed to a commoner, who is a "Knight of Grace" -- that is, the nobleman is "naturally" prepared for the honor, while a commoner is granted it almost in spite of his non-noble status. Neither of them are automatically honored -- the honor is always bestowed by the monarch. So I'm thinking the knighting of a nobleman is more a matter of politeness, and the commoner of courtesy. I don't know if this analogy helps or further confuses things! Certainly I expect a person who RSVP's they will attend to attend, and it seems impolite (and discourteous) not to attend once one has indicated otherwise. But while I consider responding to an RSVP and following up to be polite, I wouldn't call it especially courteous -- so I guess that somewhere in there is the distinction I sense between the ranges of meaning in the two words.

I'm thinking of courtesy as a gift -- like grace.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I am following you.

I grant you , courtesy isn't always something that is required. Other social aims may not always be best served by demanding it. For example in the RSVP instance I cited earlier I have to decide which is more important, keeping friends or demanding I be treated with respect in this relatively small matter. We christians may need to decide if courtesy is more important than evangelism; it seems to me that sometimes people need a good hard knock of reality before they are prepared to wake up and hear the good news. But in some instances, courtesy does seem to be something that can and should be demanded in a polite (and even in a Christian) society.

Let me use a little less emotionally laden example than my mother's demand for respect for the civil rights of others in the 60s. I'm sure that since you are a preacher yourself (an act that needs some courage, especially if there are people like my mother in the audience) and as someone who stands up for civil rights, you might find that example a little hard to follow.

How about my mother's instruction about dropping a person (not just a lady) after you have given them a ride. That's a pretty simple instance.

Her instruction to me was that it is "courteous" to not just "take off" after dropping someone off somewhere, leaving as soon as they are out of the car at their destination.

If you are dropping them off at their home or a building, wait until they are inside and the lights come on and they wave to you that all is well. If dropping them off at their car, wait until they are in the car, the engine comes on, and the headlights light up and all is clearly well.

Now, I grant you, some of this is simple caring common sense for the safety of a friend's well being. But isn't that part of the essence of courtesy - concerned regard and respect for another's well being (even if it's just their feelings and not their physical well-being as in this example)?

And isn't this largely a voluntary act. The vast majority of the time, nothing is going to happen to your friend if you drop them off and immediately "take off" without waiting to make sure that all is well. It is, as you point out, a kind of grace. I;ve noticed that LOTS of people fail to observe this simple courtesy and they seem to get along in society just fine.

That said, I would claim that I can (and DO!) demand this kind of behavior. If I am to be a friend, or even to have a discussion with someone, I DEMAND that they treat others with this kind of courtesy.

It's voluntary; it's a grace; it's even just plain 'common sense;' but I do demand it; and I don't intend to stop. Certainly it was a DEMAND of my mothers ("don't EVER let me hear of you....")

Maybe I've beaten this horse to death (or at least beyond the bounds of courtesy).


Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dear Bookguy, I don't think it's a case of a flattened horse, but rather of two different horses. I think you are using courtesy as a synonym for "politeness" or "civility" -- which it definitely is. I was using it, as I tried to explain to Erika, in its other sense of "a graceful act not otherwise required" or "a gratuitous favor" -- which I think is a rather different usage of the word. Thus I agree completely that your examples work under the definition you are using -- what I referred to above as "common courtesy"; that is, what is expected in a civil and polite society. I was thinking more of something that goes beyond the norm. I'm also now trying to remember what it was that first sparked the thought! But for the life of me I can't remember. Such is the fleeting nature of brain cells these days.

I think actually more interesting is the tension you mention between evangelism and courtesy. This is much the subject in discussions around Christ as the "Way, Truth and Life" -- as in, how do Christians maintain that belief, and a welcome into it, in a way that respects and honors other religious traditions -- some of them far older than our own! I think there is a way to do that graciously, and courteously -- but there are some who seem to go about it in a less than graceful and courteous way. And, of course, the same is true in other faiths as well.

Interesting food for thought, and thanks for your comments.

Erika Baker said...


reading this last exchange between Bookguy and you, I wonder whether what you call courtesy could not also be called "honour". It would then make it clear that it is not about mere politeness.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Yes, Erika that helps a bit. Actually I was thinking of the word in phases like, "I'm doing this as a courtesy" -- with the clear implication that it is neither expected or demanded.

This has, however, steered my thinking to the larger issue of politeness or etiquette -- and how that can morph, as something considered a normal politeness at one point in time may seem overly courtly at another, or even be taken as rudeness. I'm thinking in particular with the old custom of a gentleman holding a door open for a lady. There was a time when that was thought normally polite, but then another time when some women took offense at being so treated; and now I think the pendulum may have swung again, though I find that I will normally hold a door for anyone, man or woman.

I think we can see a way in which this process takes place even in the origin of the word "courteous" which originally meant "the way that act at court" -- that is, the rigid formality of the royal environs. These customs drifted into the mainstream, probably by people who wanted to seem more noble than they were, but many such "courtesies" have come to be expected -- and their omission considered to be rudeness.

As the old Latin tag goes, O tempore, O mores!

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

That should, of course, be "Tempora"

Erika Baker said...

Actually, what you describe reminds me also of young street kids demanding "respec!"