I remember when I was praised for being such a ‘polite little girl.’ Older aunts, uncles, family friends and my parent’s coworkers admiring my practiced inquisition as to how they were, or the eye contact and smile that were just second nature when it came to responding with manners when spoken to. I was taught manners as though it were a religion of its own. Sit up straight, don’t chew with your mouth open and be polite. Those were the rules. They were simple and clear. You don’t ignore someone who is speaking to you, say please and thank you, don’t interrupt anyone and treat people nicely. That’s what being polite is. It’s being nice.
Today, in a society so rarely face-to-face we’re forgetting to be nice. We’re defensive and suspicious, blocking out the world with headphones and commanding our attention away from those around us in our everyday lives. Rush hours of subways and buses crammed with people have their silence broken only by the squeal of the tracks or the dispersed chatter of groups of companions. Strangers brush arms and bump into one another as their jostled against the movement of the transit, but they keep their eyes glued to the floor, a phone, an advertisement on the wall or just stare, a dead-eyed stare at nothing at all. We shift uncomfortably under the gaze of anyone who looks at us and sometimes straight up ignore that rare person who tries to initiate conversation. As a woman, I’m guilty of not only ignoring a guy who tries to get my attention, but also going as far as to relocate myself to put distance between myself and the possible threat. That’s what people have become to us: threats or inconveniences. Instead of being polite first, we’ve gotten into the habit of being stand-offish and skeptical.
It’s hard to break this habit though, and it’s questionable if we’ll ever be able to revive this dying trend of politeness. We’re a society that’s become impersonal. Connections are made online, dates organized via text, jobs applied to over email, interviewers following the initial googling of a candidate’s name. We’re forgetting that to be polite isn’t meant to be flirtation. To hold a door open for someone isn’t the first step in courtship, it’s being considerate. Replying to someone and affording them your full attention isn’t a green light for romantic advancements, it’s being a decent human being.
I want to find the little girl who knew the difference without hesitation. Who not only understood what it meant to be polite but did it unconsciously, without fear of making a social faux pas. I want to be nice again.