The Virtue of Courtesy
I recently drove into a gas station to fill my tank and take advantage of its new, at-the-pump method of payment that dispenses with the need of a human cashier. The computer, however, did not “recognize” my credit card and therefore did not “authorize” its use. I was therefore obliged, though not unhappily, to deal with a human being. She explained to me that, in her opinion, the reason the computer did not accept my card was because it may have had a nick or scratch on it. “These machines are very sensitive,” she said, in an understanding tone that seemed to reflect the voice of considerable experience. We examined the card. I always kept it snug in my leather wallet, giving it a private pouch that was free from any possible rough contact with other cards. Yet, there it was, a tiny abrasion on the upper edge — enough, presumably, to make it unrecognizable to the sensitive eye of the computer.Marshall McLuhan once described the newspaper as “orchestrated discontinuity.” It is difficult to ascertain how much influence the newspaper has had on life, but life itself has become an increasingly exasperating experience of “orchestrated discontinuity.”
Courtesy is the entrance-level virtue that allows strangers to suddenly feel that they are kindred spirits. It is also the foundation on which other virtues might be established, such as kindness, thoughtfulness, amicability, and generosity.
Close to the cash register was a special display of a new and apparently quite “hot” video — The Best of Jerry Springer. The word best, of course, is better understood as meaning worst. And here is the “orchestrated discontinuity”: While technicians are laboring to make our machines more sensitive, TV producers are laboring equally hard to make their programming more coarse. It has been estimated by certain authorities in the business that the “Jerry Springer Show” exceeds the now defunct “Geraldo Rivera Show” in sheer coarseness by a factor of at least 10. Yet even this new low point in coarseness has been surpassed by the video.
We are obliged to keep our credit cards immaculate out of deference to sensitive machinery. But when it comes to human interaction, at least in the popular style exhibited on the immensely successful “Jerry Springer Show,” gross insensitivity to other people’s feelings is the order of the day.
We now live, as the playwrite Arthur Miller has pointed out, “in an air-conditioned nightmare.” We treat our neighbor in a manner that would not be tolerated by a sensitive computer. Another way of putting it is to say that we are misplacing sensitivity. Human beings are incomparably more sensitive than any kind of machinery. The computer does not really care if it is used, abused, or ignored. But human beings do. And profoundly. Yet, we consider it progress to make machines that are more and more sensitive, while we note the marked increase in crudeness that takes place between human beings. We feel a growing obligation not to bruise our credit cards, while we observe that bruising other people’s feelings is becoming a national pastime.
Persons, not machines
What’s missing in our era of machine-efficiency is courtesy. There is no point in being courteous to a machine. The machine is programmed for efficiency, not civility. Human beings need to be acknowledged as having a value that has absolutely nothing to do with efficiency. They need to be honored as human beings. Courtesy does this. It is the entrance-level virtue that acknowledges that the other human being is worthy of being honored simply because he is a human being. Courtesy may or may not lead to friendship, but it is the first virtue in the catalog of human virtues that one can express to a complete stranger without risk of impropriety.
There’s no point in greeting a machine or saying “hello” to it. Its sensitivity is wholly mechanical. Human beings, unlike machines, have an inherent dignity. They need to be reminded of this dignity, lest they forget they possess it.
Our ability to recognize that another human being is a human being is not impaired by the fact that he is imperfect in some way. A society of unblemished, beautiful people is one in which common courtesy would be unnecessary. The ideal for a credit card is not the ideal for a human being. “I will not recognize you unless you are unflawed” is the most discourteous attitude one could have for another human being. It represents the failure to acknowledge the dignity that is inherent in each one of us. Ladies and Gentlemen
Courtesy is paradoxical but immensely practical. The courteous person assumes that every man is a gentleman and every woman is a lady and treats them accordingly. In doing so, a person displays the mark of a gentleman or a lady. It may seem naïve and gratuitous to make such an assumption, but it is remarkable how many people begin to act as gentlemen and ladies simply because they were thought to be worthy of respect.
The foundation for courtesy is the dignity of man. Courtesy is the appropriate response to recognizing the divine imprint in another person. It senses nobility at first sight and then acts in a manner consistent with that sense.
Courtesy is the entrance-level virtue that allows strangers to suddenly feel that they are kindred spirits. It is also the foundation on which other virtues might be established, such as kindness, thoughtfulness, amicability, and generosity. No true and lasting human relationship can begin without the virtue of courtesy. It appears at the beginning of a relationship (should we call it a relationship?) and abides throughout it. It is expressed to both the stranger and to the intimate. It is the needed antidote to our world of machine-efficiency. It reminds us of our distinctive humanity and invites us to follow its beckoning course. Its sensitivity is always an accepting one, greeting the poor and the afflicted and the affluent and the healthy with equal temperament. It offers the smile of recognition, and the possibility of friendship. It costs nothing, and can, at times, save us from despair.
By Donald DeMarco
DeMarco, Donald. “The Virtue of Courtesy.” Lay Witness (November 1999).
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father’s intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.
Donald DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue’s Alphabet: From Amiability to Zeal and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator’s Resource Center.