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Cultivating courtesy

SURYAKUMARI DENNISON Nov 15 2017, 10:20 IST

"He lacks common courtesy," said my nephew's wife complaining about someone who works for her. He sees her struggling with groceries while holding on to her son, but offers no help with the bags or the child.

Courtesy is not common. More often, we encounter its opposite, especially as we travel to work and back. The term 'road rage', which originated in the US, aptly describes the conduct of commuters in our country. Frustrated with delays in heavy, haphazard traffic, we exchange insults and intimidating gestures.

On or off the road, it is hard to be polite under pressure. When things do not go my way, I find myself getting irritable. It calms me to recall a verse that my favourite teacher wrote in my autograph book, five decades ago, which I have since shared with my students. 'It is easy enough to be pleasant/ When life flows by like a song,/ But the man worthwhile is one who will smile/ When everything goes dead wrong.' Obviously, this also applies to women.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox penned these lines in the early-20th century, about the time that Frances Hodgson's Burnett's novel, 'A Little Princess', was published. In Burnett's book, which has a similar message to Wilcox's poem, wealthy Sara Crewe (the 'Little Princess') is pampered by the headmistress of her boarding school. Unspoiled by indulgence, Sara befriends those less privileged, including a maid named Becky. When 11-year-old Sara loses her father, the star-student is left destitute and forced to perform menial tasks. Since she continues to be kind and considerate, Sara is as regal in penury as in prosperity.

'Courtesy', connoting gentleness of speech and action, derives from a French word that dates back to the 12th century. It was an era in which grace and good manners were associated with the nobility, and people of high rank were expected to be role models. Of course, exemplary behaviour has more to do with character than class. Each of us can choose to respond to belligerence with benevolence, so let us make courtesy common by cultivating it.

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