Sometimes, standing in a check-out queue, I have been tempted to murder the person in front — not because they are in front of me but because of the way in which they are treating the person at the till. Most people, most of the time, are polite; but there are those who seem to make it their business to be as rude and difficult as possible; and then there are the rest of us, who want to be polite, but who have occasional stunning lapses. Where, then, does courtesy come in, those manners fit for a royal court? I think Chesterton captured its essence when he said that ‘the grace of God is in courtesy’. Politeness can be a mere exterior polish applied to our rough and ready selves but courtesy, real courtesy, must come from within. I like to think of it as a sacramental. Indeed, I would go so far as to say it is an outward expression of an inward grace. The opposite, alas, is also true. Rudeness shows only too well what is within. For a Benedictine, the ritualised courtesies of the cloister protect us from the grosser manifestations of selfishness, but unless they become internalised, so that they are a genuine expression of what is within, they do not rise above the level of a formal politesse. Even so, I don’t think they should be despised. After all, we don’t really want to live in a world where might is always right, and the young, the old, the frail and the vulnerable must go to the wall, do we?


7 thoughts on “Courtesy”

  1. Very well said – as ever! You have taken me back to my days as a Girl Guide in the late 60s when one of our campfire songs was “Of courtesy it is much less than courage of heart…..” by Hilaire Belloc – I loved it with it’s pictures of the Archangel Gabriel, the Blessed Virgin Mary and Christ Himself as types of courtesy. I can’t somehow imagine today’s teenagers singing it round the campfire! You are right, of course, that courtesy should come from within, but the practice of courtesy – and I’m thinking of our expectations of the young – can encourage empathy in that it gives us pause, in our headlong rush through life, to consider the feelings of others. God bless you.

  2. One of my daughters works in a retail environment and she is treated rudely quite often, typically over things that aren’t even in her control. We live in a culture that is very coarse, and greatly values “expression” over civility. With some imagination, a little intelligence and a heart seeking something better, we can have expression and civility, and have it in even greater amounts.

  3. “Courtesy is a jewel in the crown of charity” .
    I think I have remembered this correctly but do not know its origin. I heard it from our dear friend the former Anglican bishop of Guyana.

  4. Thank you for reminding us of sacramental acts (courtesies) that we can administer and receive throughout the day, and reminding us of God’s grace towards us.

  5. Thank you, Dame Catherine, for your thoughts on this. I observed very discourteous behaviour at my local supermarket only a few days ago when the person in front of me, spoke in her own mother tongue on her mobile throughout the whole transaction completely ignoring the check-out girl. There was absolutely no dialogue with this girl and not even so much as a thank you let alone any eye contact. When I remarked to the check-out girl about this person’s rudeness, she shrugged her shoulders and said that it was fairly normal behaviour and she was used to it. How sad.

  6. How quickly people seem to be moved to aggresion/rudeness especially towards those providing a service to them. I have been saddened by fellow customers treating (often young) staff in a dreadul way and even witnessed health staff abused for not being quick enough or for failing to indulge some whim. True courtesy – putting the needs of the other person first – whether it be giving way on the road or letting them sit when tired or simply putting up with the fact you are not going to get what you want by sulking/shouting seems rare these days. I will try to be more gracious.

  7. Thank you for this. As ever, right on the nail. I think it did me a lot of good when, during university vacations, I worked amongst other things as a waitress, bus conductress, shop assistant and hop picker. I discovered just how soul destroying it could be, dealing with the general public from a weak position. Overbearing rudeness is another form of bullying.

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