Courtesy is no longer common and it is a sad reflection on our modern society. The word is so old-fashioned that it might be described as medieval — which, of course, it was coming from the Old French word, corteis.
Many such words are falling out of use — as in manners, civility, gallantry and chivalry while others are in danger of meaning something very different. Roget’s Thesaurus suggests some synonyms such as flattery and condescension, which are becoming terms of denigration rather than complimentary. Such is the nature of the changing English language.
Courtesy is being polite and having good manners. It is a gracious way of speaking and acting which gives others a feeling of being valued and respected. It is greeting others with respect. The term originally meant the behaviour of a courtier, a person who attends the court of a monarch or other powerful person.
It is a rarity today to hear a child saying “Thank you” in a tone of voice which implies that the phrase is meaningful to both the giver and the recipient. Not the reluctant response to a parental instruction to “Say ‘Thank You’ to Auntie Violet for that lovely purple woollen hat she has spent so much time knitting for you.”
There is a strong element of kindness in the simple offering of unexpected goodwill. Courtesy is ‘bread upon the waters’. You never know when it will be repaid, if ever. The current meme would describe it as “paying it forward.” (A great film, by the way, starring the disgraced Kevin Spacy but also Helen Hunt and the talented Haley Joel Osment.)
But beware. The opposite is also true in that discourtesy will come back to bite you. Way back in the 1960s my father had an office in Cavendish Square behind John Lewis in London. There were no parking meters, yellow lines or traffic wardens in those far off days and cars would be double- or even triple-parked around the square. There was a wonderful doorman guarding the entrance to the seven offices at 19a, Cavendish Square — Mr Taylor. He wore a long black coat, polished black boots, pinstripe trousers and a top hat. He would have been a credit to Claridges, The Ritz or The Savile Club in Mayfair. He was the epitome of dignity and courtesy — with a wicked sense of humour.
Whenever I parked my old banger outside the building Mr Taylor would ask for the keys so that he could move the vehicles about as parking spaces became available. He would always ask when I needed to use the car again so that it was accessible on my return. One afternoon a client of Lew Grade, the theatrical impresario, arrived in his Rolls Royce and proceeded to park it against the kerb. Mr Taylor approached him to ask for the keys but the man, in a particularly lofty manner, refused to hand them over saying that he was only going to be there for an hour or so and anyway, he never gave the keys to his Roller to strangers.
You didn’t do this to Mr Taylor. He may have been born and bred in the murkier parts of the East End but he had good manners to his fingertips. You earned his respect over the years with a courtesy which is no longer “common”..
Two hours later the client returned to his car which, by this time, was hemmed in by cars in front, behind and alongside the Rolls. He snapped his fingers at Mr Taylor and instructed him to move the offending vehicles so that he could get his own car out.
“Sorry, sir, they never left me the keys”
The Roller was trapped for a further five hours!
Courtesy does not come with status, wealth, connections, education or from an instruction manual. It is not a matter of doffing one’s cap — very few men wear them nowadays — but simple consideration of other people’s feelings. Holding a shop door open for a following customer, offering to pick something up dropped by an arthritic pensioner, letting a driver out into your line of traffic or complimenting a stranger on their choice of clothes can often generate a feel good factor in oneself.
When was the last time you offered to carry a heavy shopping bag for an old lady when you had just popped into the supermarket for a newspaper? Try it and you will find a ray of sunshine brighten your life.
Let’s make courtesy more common.