Why Being “Nice” Matters

I spent the day with my granddaughter today.  We went to the bakery, the bank, the grocery, and the library.  Some days we visit the post office or a local cafe.  We live downtown, so we walk everywhere, and say hello to people we meet along the way.  At each stop, we thank the people behind the counter or desk.  My granddaughter is learning manners– how to be polite in public.  Her parents do a wonderful job of this, and it’s very easy for me to bask in the proud glow of people remarking on how cute and polite and engaging she is.  (I may be a little biased, but they DO say such things…)

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Years ago, when I worked at a library, there were always families who came in and practiced good manners– “Please” and “Thank You,” “Excuse me,” “I’m sorry,” and “May I?”  Often, the children were prompted, especially when they were young.  Sometimes, they didn’t understand why they were being told to say such things.  A couple of times, I had other parents roll their eyes and comment negatively on such practices.  “They don’t even understand what they’re saying.”  “I’ll bet they don’t say any of those things at home– what hypocrites.  They’re just trying to make people think they’re better than everybody else.”  “You shouldn’t force kids to say such things.  They’ll just resent you for it later.”

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There are actually parenting articles about forcing children to say “I’m sorry.”  They are well-intentioned, and some are helpful about explaining what the issues are (here’s a link to one of the articles) .  Other articles advise parents not to prompt children to say, “Thank You.” (Here’s another link.)  I don’t disagree with these authors.  In fact, I think they make a valid point about teaching our kids “shallow” manners and neglecting the deeper values of gratitude and empathy.  But I think children need both.

Manners (especially as they reflect deeper values) are important.  We live in a society where manners are becoming relics–laughable reminders of a quaint culture we have long outgrown.  There are pockets of the country (and the larger world) where politeness is almost an obsession.  It is not polite or helpful to be facetiously “nice” or sarcastically “nice”.  But what happens when we no longer dare to show gratitude or empathy without inviting ridicule and contempt?  What happens when saying “Please” and “Thank you” make you a target for mockery? When and how did this happen to our culture?

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With all due respect to the recent spate of articles, I think something gets lost in the hyperbolic headlines and fascination with “feelings”–manners should originate, not with feelings, but with the acknowledgement of some basic truths:

  • I am not the center of the universe!
  • Other people– all other people–have value, worth, and dignity.
  • I need other people, and they need me–I am not an island.
  • There is a God who is kind, forgiving, loving, and wise.
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I am polite to others, not because I feel “nice”, but because I recognize that God created all people; He loves us all equally, and I have a duty to treat others with dignity, respect, and kindness– even if I don’t “feel” it; even if they don’t respond in kind.  Do I always remember and acknowledge this, even as an adult?  Sadly, no.  But I practice politeness as a discipline and a reminder that this should be so.  I teach it for the same reason.  And the amazing thing is that it makes a huge difference.  Maybe not in the moment, with all my emotions running wild…but in the quiet aftermath of knowing that I said “Thank you” instead of the hurtful and sarcastic comment.  I said “I’m sorry” instead of holding on to my pride and bitterness.  And I may never know the difference it made to the harried waitress, or lonely shopper, or tired mechanic to hear two or three kind words– “Thank You” (You are noticed– you matter).  “I’m so sorry” (you have dignity–you are worthy of kindness) “Please” (you have value–your time, skill, or service is special)

I’m not a “nice” person– I am often hateful and stubborn and impatient.  But God has been abundantly gracious and merciful to me when I don’t deserve it.  Being polite is such a small thing in light of God’s eternal and boundless love toward us.

backlit clouds dawn dusk
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