Croskey’s Corner: Respect
Respect Requires Empathy
by Bill Croskey
Respect Requires Empathy On Talk of the Nation (an NPR show) a while back, I heard an interview with an author named Henry Alford, who has written a book called Would It Kill You To Stop Doing That? He spoke about the need for etiquette, or what I prefer to call manners, in 21st Century America. His book gives examples of bad manners: the rider who sneezes in a crowded bus and manages to hit every passenger; people who cut into movie lines; or a person texting in the middle of a movie. He argues that good manners can be harder to define than bad ones. In the radio interview, he stated that it was poor manners to ask a physician how long s/he has been in practice; or to ask an attorney if one is being billed for a phone call; or to ask someone where they are from. (How was your score? I was 0 for 3!) He even has a remedy for what he calls being addressed with a pet name. “I think … what I would be tempted to do is to launch into what I call retaliatory manners, and that is to say, I would ‘hon’ a ‘hon,’ I would ‘doll face’ a ‘doll face.’”
This reminded me of books I’ve read about grammar. (Yeah, I read grammar books without being threatened with torture!) Someone has decided there are rules; someone (else) has decided to tell you what the rules are; and someone (you) who behaves otherwise is considered in violation of these common sense rules, which may not be commonly sensible at all! Just as there are grammatical rules which are logical, there are manners that makes sense to me, such as holding a door for anyone, as a sign of respect or courtesy – or because that person does not have free hands to do it. Or helping a person with his or her coat. Or sharing a delicious entree at a restaurant. Yet the latter illustrates a point: some people would be thrilled to have a taste of some food you are enjoying. But others would be offended, even grossed out, at the idea of eating from your plate. Where does sharing stop and offense begin? Who is to say? The self-appointed manners expert, that’s who!
So, most people would probably agree that there is a need for manners and civil behavior in our culture. I suspect, however, that the specific rules would find about as much common agreement as do political opinions or religious views. Manners may be like rules of thumb; they provide general guidelines but they have to be applied with wisdom in particular cases.
The Character Quality of the Month, Respect, is very mannerly. The definition is, “Treating others with honor and dignity.” The “I will” statements include noticing those around me, respecting the feelings of others, and not using offensive language. I think the key to Respect may be empathy, which I think of as having walked a mile in another’s shoes, or at least tried hard to imagine that walk, and noticing how the journey felt to him or her, as well as how it looked and sounded. Note: It refers to how an experience feels to another, not how it might feel to you.
Trying not to offend others’ tastes get tricky, as we said, because their tastes may be so different from ours. One of the points Henry Alford made in his book was that we can learn about manners by looking at other cultures. I would go further and say that one reason manners are becoming even more important is because we are living in close proximity to so many other cultures. If we all followed the same customs as an isolated culture does, we would have little need for manners. Every day customary behavior would suffice. But in the age of Diversity, with cultures rubbing elbows on the bus, if not sneezing in each others’ faces, there is more need than ever to first find out WHAT the tastes of others are and then try not to offend them. I could ask all 300 million Americans what their tastes are. Or I could try to get better at using communication, careful observation, respectful questions, and sensitive assessment to develop empathy for others. Then, if I know better how that person feels, I know better how to respect their tastes.
How do we get kids to exhibit better manners? Well, as with ALL Character, it comes back to modeling. We adults say please and thank you; we send thank you notes; we hold doors for others; we drive courteously; we respect the possessions of others, such as not helping ourselves to the lunch food which people store in community refrigerators. We avoid gossiping about others and use the tattle/report rule: We never tell a story about another to get them into trouble. We only tell a story in order to keep them – or us – out of trouble. In short, we are models of good manners for our students. Aren’t we?