Japanese Garden Peabody Essex Museum

[Photograph Peabody Essex Museum Japanese Garden, Salem, MA]

Every now and again, I just notice something for an entire day. Today, it is courtesy.

According to the online dictionary, courtesy is defined as: The showing of politeness in one’s attitude and behavior toward others. Easy. It’s just a showing and not an actual way of being.


In my observations, courtesy may be considered a commodity (A raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold, such as copper or coffee.) If I perceive a direct windfall for me, my courtesy meter dials up. When the opposite is true, no need to bother with niceties. So let’s review a few common instances of courtesy or lack thereof.

While I was edging out of a driveway and taking a left against the traffic, the traffic backed up due to a light. Did the man in the expensive SUV stop and let me through to my direction? No. He blocked access to the direction I wished to go. He was busy looking at his cell phone. He firmly made no eye contact with me.

Once traffic started to move forward, a man driving a company truck behind the SUV allowed me to cross over into my lane.

I went to a local coffee chain and placed my order. I guess I was like a mother wishing her child was using his/her magic words. I beamed, smiling, my head nodding in hope of a “Thank you”. None was forthcoming. I took my coffee and left crestfallen. And, then it happened … a young man held the door open for me and said “After you.” The moment was rescued.


Without a doubt, driving creates the most opportunity for politeness yet it is most notably the least courteous. Both men and women drivers are dreadful at courtesy. And by that I mean allowing one to enter traffic. Merging one car after the next. Who has the right of way when entering a four-way intersection? (Quick. Time to revisit your driving manual.) Stopping for pedestrians. Not blocking intersections.

Yes, I am from Boston where turn signal use is foreign and unnatural. Where rules of the road need not apply in parking lots. The bigger, more powerful or more expensive the car, the pecking order at intersections change.  A “No Parking” sign  is only a suggestion and a yellow traffic light means speed up not slow down.


How can you not say “Please” and “Thank-you”? “Get me” and “Gimme” are words of entitlement. As if you and only you are able to have whatever you want. Try smiling at strangers. Half of the population will feel uncomfortable. Perhaps you were smiling at the person behind them or there is something dangerously wrong with you being allowed in public unsupervised.

Allowing the person with fewer items in a shopping cart to go before you. (The universe might split apart.)

Paying for the person behind you in the drive through just because. (You’re not right in the head.)

Reaching out to folks who may need a moment of your time to listen and appreciate them. (Don’t have time for that kind of interaction.)


Courtesy is the glue that keeps us civilized. To be able to share a public place with grace. To honor the individual’s right to co-exist. It’s a kind of mashup of words, gestures and emotions that entwine in us and then outwardly as we connect with others either by chance or appointment.

It’s not as complicated as it sounds but there are layers of interconnectedness. We reflect what is in us by how we connect with the world and the people in it.

Courtesy lets us be at the top of the food chain.

It’s an honest way to greet strangers with an open attitude. Courtesy gives the other person a chance to shine for you. An opportunity to meet on a common ground.

Take a look at your behavior behind the wheel, at the checkout, or in a restaurant. Are you engaging in entitlement or courtesy?

You might be surprised.