This will come across sanctimonious, like I’m trying to flaunt how good of a person I am. So let me start by offering the assurance that I prove no more courteous than anyone else, and may even be a bit below average. I use an example of my own courtesy because I remain well-informed as to its motivation.
I went to the gas station the other day to pick up a couple of snacks which I should not be eating. I was in no hurry. It was one of those meandering stops where you spend more time than you really need applying more thought than is rationally due to whether you should experiment with a new flavor of Combos.
When I finally completed my selection, I made my way to the register, where I stood in line behind one other person. A women rushed in from the arctic weather (uncharacteristically cold for this time of year, even in Minnesota) clasping onto a ten dollar bill and signaling without any sense of entitlement that she was in a hurry.
I stood next to be served and could have taken that privilege without objection. But I made the decision to yield my place in line to her. She paid her ten dollars for pump four and went on her way, delaying me mere seconds as opposed to the minute or so I may have delayed her.
As I left, seven layer dip tortilla Combos in hand, I pondered why I had stepped aside. Here I am, an admirer of Ayn Rand, an advocate of individual rights, frequently evoking rational self-interest in my analysis of politics and culture. Was my tiny act of courtesy a violation of that principle? Did I fail to act in my own rational self-interest by allowing a stranger to take my place in line? Did I sacrifice something of value for something of lesser or no value?
Not at all. In fact, my values and interests motivated the entire process. When the women stumbled in from the cold clutching that ten dollar bill, visibly frustrated by the short line ahead of her, I recognized an experience I could relate to. We have all been in a hurry at one time or another. We have all been frustrated by someone ahead of us in line, especially when we have a simple transaction and they have a bunch of coupons and a checkbook. My empathy with her situation motivated me to do unto her as I would want done unto me, not because I’m a great person, and certainly not because I’m altruistic, but because it brought me a small degree of pleasure to make her life a small degree easier. Her situation and actions affirmed my values, which created a kind of spiritual transaction, leaving us both better off.
Another recent experience provides a different sort of example. Traveling on the metro light rail with my family – my wife, my four-year-old son, and his five-month-old baby brother — we ran into an ordeal when attempting to exit an elevated station. The elevator was out of order, leaving only the stairs for us to negotiate with a heavily laden stroller. We decided that the safest course of action was to remove the baby from the stroller. I would carry him down the stairs still strapped in his car seat, while my wife wrestled the stroller down the stairs and supervised our four year old. I was the better choice to take the stroller, but my wife wanted the stronger of us to focus exclusively on the baby.
The journey down the steep, three-tiered staircase was slow and awkward. Our four year old, no doubt sensing our discomfort with the situation, became uneasy and moved clumsily. My wife directed him and dragged the stroller behind her with a thud on each step.
Soon, two young men came down the stairs behind her. They slowed and did not pass her, which made her feel even more awkward and rushed. Finally, she stopped and turned to them and asked them to go around her, which they did.
If I had been either of those young men, and I had seen a mother and her child struggling to lug a stroller down a flight of stairs, I imagine I would have offered to help. So why didn’t they?
A dramatization of our experience. Some artistic license taken.
First, let’s acknowledge that there existed no obligation for them to show us courtesy. Our problem was not their problem. In fact, our problem is so far outside the experience and concerns of young unmarried men, that it likely triggered no empathy from them. I like to think I would help some other mother in the same circumstance because I can relate to it. In effect, as was the case with the woman at the gas station, I would adopt her problem as my own.
Such a process motivates all courtesy. These interactions serve as spiritual transactions, much like a knowing nod, a tip of the hat, or a thumbs up. We thus express solidarity with another person’s experience, and affirm to whatever relevant degree their expressed or implied values. A young mother struggling to get her children down a long flight of stairs communicates her values by doing so. A passerby comes along, receives that communication, and provides feedback by lending a hand. A couple pushing their car into a gas station communicates their values by doing so. Others nearby receive that message and affirm their sympathy by rushing over to help. We do these things because we care about the values being pursued, because we wish to communicate to those pursuing such values that we approve of their effort. We express courtesy because we want to, not as a sacrifice of our values to something which does not matter.
Considering that, one might wonder why we teach courtesy to children. Why instruct children to say “please” and “thank you” and watch where they are going and yield to others in spite of the fact that such actions are motivated by parental authority instead of the child’s conscientious values? Two reasons emerge. First, as custodians substituting our rational faculty for theirs, we instruct them to act upon our values until they mature and develop their own. Second, and more importantly, we act to foster their perception of the world around them, including the other people in it. Perception proves crucial to critical thinking and the development of rational values. So by instructing courtesy we serve their interests now and in the future, and that in turn serves ours.
It’s all wonderfully selfish. And that’s what makes it such a valuable gesture. The discovery that another shares your values is the treasure sought in the social experience.