This post examines the virtue of courtesy. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.
The best concise definition of courtesy I have found is this one, from H.E. Norton, honorary secretary of the charmingly-named “Children’s National Guild of Courtesy”: “kindly and thoughtful consideration for others.”
Courtesy is closely related to things like manners, etiquette, politeness, decorum, and propriety. If you go hunting for advice about courtesy (as I did), much of what you find will be guides to polite manners for various occasions. Some of these are more nuanced than others, but many seem to be catering to a hope that courtesy can be reduced to a set of rules that, once you learn them, will keep you out of trouble. But heuristics, norms, and rules of thumb will only get you so far. “Kindly and thoughtful consideration for others” requires attentiveness, discernment, and creativity.
Etiquette often has more to do with behaving conventionally than thoughtfully. That said, such conventions sometimes have courtesy as a goal, and often seem meant to be safe defaults that approximate kindly and thoughtful consideration for others in common situations. Other conventions have other purposes, such as to show submission to people in dominant classes (“always doff your hat to a duke”), or to signal your membership in (or aspiration to) a class (“a well-bred gentleman never…”). The origins of some conventions are obscure, but they can still be useful signals of kindly-and-thoughtful intentions. For some conventions, even if they have an element of the arbitrary to them, just that they are conventions makes it kindly and thoughtful to follow them (“slow drivers stay in the right lane”). However, you should be prepared to sacrifice conventional etiquette for actual kindly and thoughtful consideration (“I apologize for not shaking your hand; I’m trying to be especially cautious during the pandemic”).
“Honorifics and formal politeness provide lubrication where people rub together. Often the very young, the untraveled, the naïve, the unsophisticated deplore these formalities as ‘empty,’ ‘meaningless,’ or ‘dishonest,’ and scorn to use them. No matter how ‘pure’ their motives, they thereby throw sand into machinery that does not work too well at best.” ―Robert Heinlein
Because of this element of the arbitrary, different dialects of manners emerge in different cultures and subcultures. A wise person will not mistake the dialect he or she knows most fluently for the universal standard by which others are judged.
The purpose of courtesy is often to make other people feel at ease. The urbane host and the tactful conversationalist gracefully and unobtrusively smooth over any rough spots that might interfere with social interactions going well.
Other times, courtesy is a form of compassion — opening the door for someone carrying a package, offering to let someone go ahead of you in line at the grocery store if they seem in a hurry. Courtesy is usually mild and gentle, always kind.
Civility is a form of courtesy, along with charity (in the sense of interpreting others’ actions in the best plausible light, or of steelmanning their arguments).
Many other social virtues are themselves courteous to exhibit, or their absence is discourteous: things like appreciation, sympathy, remembrance, concern, muditā, goodwill, agreeableness, geniality, graciousness, modesty, warmth, sincerity, honesty, gratitude, respect-for-others, magnanimity, hospitality, cooperation, conciliation, fairness, forgiveness, willingness to accept fault, openness, understanding, friendship, fashion sense (in certain contexts, e.g. a funeral), reciprocity, dependability, loyalty, unpretentiousness, discretion, tact, and conversational competence in general, including good listening.
In my own experience, I’ve noted that my lapses in courtesy have often been a result of a failure of attention: An occasion to be courteous arose, but because I was absent-minded, I didn’t notice until too late. I’ve been able to improve on this slowly by doing regular mindfulness meditation, and also by getting in the habit of periodically reminding myself to come back down to earth when I’m lost in thought.
Norms of civility can sometimes be polite masks for attitudes that defend the status quo against unpopular ideas and low-status people. This is especially true of norms of etiquette that are designed to help people to pass as being members of high-status groups. For this reason, beware isolated demands for courtesy.
Being polite requires that you accommodate yourself to other people somewhat, but it can be tricky to know how far to bend without breaking. It’s probably courteous not to insult another person’s religion, but ought you to go further and avoid violating certain of their religious taboos in their presence? must you join them in their rituals to avoid giving offense? It’s probably a courteous kindness to laugh at another person’s jokes whether or not you find them all that funny… but what if they tell a joke that demeans others or is offensive to your dignity? Courtesy can run into boundaries defended by other virtues, and it requires wisdom and discernment to decide how accommodating you can be when that happens. How to say “no” politely, and how to be courteously assertive, are skills that can make courtesy easier to practice.
Some forms of “political correctness” are complex dialects of etiquette that act as status markers. If you are well-educated and keep up to date on intellectual trends in the right circles, you’ll know which phrases (e.g. “all lives matter”) and ideas (e.g. “sexual preference”) have gone out of fashion and now mark you as politically backward or as disrespectful. This is another balancing act. On the one hand, it is good to learn ways in which the language you use may embed assumptions that inadvertently offend, so you can correct for this; on the other hand, the roiling fashions of what is and isn’t correct language can become detached from concerns of kindness and respect and can become mere shibboleths with the more sinister purpose of tarring the unfashionable out-group with a broad brush.
Politeness can be mockingly ironic, merely insincere, or more self-consciously deceptive. Such things are not merely harmful in the immediate context, but can degrade the value of politeness more generally by making politeness a less reliable indicator of genuine courtesy. Someone who gets a reputation for being insincere in their displays of politeness may find that it becomes increasingly expensive for them to convincingly signal courtesy and goodwill.
Politeness, if it has mercenary motives, is just a sort of flattery or obsequiousness: kissing up to those above you on the ladder in the hopes of getting a boost or joining the winning team. It is one of the hazards of being in situations where political ambition or cutthroat social climbing rule the roost that politeness becomes less sincere or more obviously transactional.
“The small courtesies sweeten life, the greater ennoble it.” ―Christian Nestell Bovee
Courtesy, done right, is nice to people. It makes them feel more comfortable, more respected. It tends to evoke courtesy in others, which can rebound on you, which can make you feel more comfortable and respected in turn, so wins all around. Discourtesy also tends to evoke a like response: one flame can kindle a flame war.
Courtesy suggests goodwill and invites goodwill from others. It communicates the absence of threats or hostile tensions in the environment. In such ways, courtesy helps social interactions go smoothly. If you are courteous to others, they will be more likely to enjoy and to seek out your company, which is nice if you like company. Even if you don’t much like company, it’s usually easier to tolerate in a genuinely courteous atmosphere.
If you are courteous, this signals that you are well-brought-up and well-socialized. It also marks you as self-sufficient and doing well (if you can concentrate thoughtfully on kindly consideration for others, you likely are not overly-concerned about your own needs). It is a signal to others that you have your shit together. This can be attractive to others and also suggests that you won’t be a burden on them, which can make people more eager to cooperate with you. On the other hand, being discourteous can make you an object of ridicule and contempt (the recent “Karen” caricature is an example).
To strengthen the virtue of courtesy, I suggest the following: First, there are certain prerequisites that make courtesy easier to practice. Self-sufficiency and contentment give you the slack that makes it easier to pay attention to others. That attention also requires mindfulness, the ability to see what’s in front of your eyes. Along with empathy and respect-for-others, attention can help you identify opportunities to be considerate. Strengthening any of those virtues will help you to be more courteous in general.
Remember also that list of social virtues I gave earlier. Any of those may come into play on a specific occasion of courteousness. There are also a multitude of even more specific guidelines that don’t rise to the level of virtues but are important habits of politeness — things like being on time, knowing how to apologize, not monopolizing conversation, taking good care of things you borrow, lending a hand when one is needed, and so forth… more than I can list. Books of etiquette can help with some of this.
It’s good to learn the local etiquette dialect of your place and time, and some adjacent ones too. A more cosmopolitan curiosity can help you learn which parts of your local dialects are just local, which might save you from some embarrassment when you encounter someone from another culture.
You can also get hints from observing what other people do, and what they approve and disapprove of in others. Carefully identify people whose manners you admire, who tend to make people around them comfortable without sacrificing their dignity. Observe and learn. What would you have done in their situation, and what did they do instead, and how do you explain the difference? Every once in a while I stumble on an old book that has a character who is exceptionally good at genuine courtesy, and that can be another good example that I can use to compare my instincts with.
And while I don’t want to put too much emphasis on this, I feel I should mention that it might help to get stoned once in a while. I made some leaps-and-bounds changes in my personality as a young stoner when, while good and high, I was able to see my own actions from an outside perspective while at the same time introspecting the hell out of the triggers and habits that led to those actions. I saw some things I didn’t admire and so I put in the work to change them. I don’t know that marijuana is any sort of panacea for this sort of thing, but I think in my case I was able to use it to make progress that would have taken me a lot longer to reach otherwise.
H.E. Norton, Courtesy: A Reader for Older Boys and Girls (1913 ed., p. 15)
Robert Heinlein, Time Enough For Love (1973)
Christian Nestell Bovee, Intuitions and Summaries of Thought (1862)