Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Civility Costs Nothing and Buys Everything

One of the things I miss most from my youth is civility. Civility is defined as politeness or the act of showing regard for others. People were nicer to each other when I was growing up. We never called our elders, including our neighbors, by their first names. As far as we knew, they didn't have first names. Every adult was either Mister, Mrs., or Miss. We, and our parents, did however know the names of our mailman, dry cleaner, pharmacist, newsboy and the store clerk. What's more, they knew our names. They, and we, would take a minute or two each time we met to exchange pleasantries along with conducting business.

Today, people are strangers. The woman at the cash register ringing up your sale is a cypher, a nonentity. If you know her name, it's only because of the nametag she displays on her lapel, like a dog tag on a canine's collar. That makes sense for dogs, who can't talk, but not for humans, who can freely speak their names, if asked. She has no personality, no life, no hobbies, no children, and no opinions. She is a wage earner, and therefore viewed as somehow less human than yourself. If you speak to her, it is only to say "Hello", "Goodbye", and "Do you have change for a ten?"

In my case, the world I live in is populated by real people. For 12 years, every time I passed through Flo's checkout lane at the supermarket, she would ask me how my bird was. We chatted each time I came in and she always recognized me. The man who runs the fish department had lung cancer surgery a few days ago. I'm hoping he'll be back on the job soon and fully recovered. We talked about his surgery a few weeks before he went in. He was understandably frightened but glad the doctors think they caught it in time. I don't think any other customers know about his condition or his operation; I don't think many cared enough about him as a person. To them, he is the fish department guy and they just want their fish. Sal the tailor altered all my suits for years, until I left the job that required me to wear suits every day. About eight years passed before I stepped back into his shop. I was saddened to learn Sal had died and I wondered if his wife would even remember me. I needn't have wondered. Maria saw me and asked how my dogs were. She remembered me, not just as a customer, but as a person, because that's how I had always treated them.

So, I was surprised by what happened at Walmart, today. For the past two years, a Pakistani man has been the greeter at the entrance. Instead of ignoring him as I walk past, I always pause to say hello and ask how he is. He's always been pleased by the attention, and usually rushes toward me when he sees me enter, extends his hand, and sometimes gives me an effusive hug, asking "How are you my friend?" I always assumed he was pleased to see a customer who didn't pass by him as if he didn't exist. But today, I noticed him in the aisle I was in. As much as I detest shaking hands, especially when I'm buying produce, I felt I couldn't ignore him, so I said "Hello." He muttered something back, and turned to the shelf. I stepped closer and replied, "I'm sorry, I couldn't hear you from where I was standing." He turned back to me, explained it was his day off, and turned away again. It took me a second to realize what had occurred. He was a Walmart greeter. Greeting people was his job. It was his day off, so he didn't have to talk to me.

It's a sad society when you have to pay people to be civil.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "Life is not so short but that there is always time enough for courtesy." Or, as writer Mary Wortley Montagu put it, " Civility costs nothing and buys everything."


  1. Honestly, the instance you described above with the taciturn store greeter on his day off would have hurt my feelings [silly, but true].

    However, what you said about growing up with manners instilled [or knocked lol] in us by our parents is quite true. The ONLY time I ever remember my mother physically reprimanding me is the one time I made the mistake of *smarting-off* to my father ... I think my cheek is still orbiting Earth from the resultant *smack* :P

    Anyway, maybe civility is becoming a forgotten art, and the best one can do is to teach by example~

    But as there's always room for improvement, thank you for the reminder. :)

  2. I would have described the greeter as laconic rather than taciturn. In fact, I think it was his curtness and terse reply that impacted me. If he hadn't said anything at all, I would have thought he had other things on his mind, didn't recognize me outside of where he usually saw me, or even had a sore throat, lol.

  3. Next time he *greets* you with a hug, slip him a packet of Halls throat lozenges lol ;D