EDITOR’S NOTE: On social media we discuss the difference between Ivy Style and dressing for affectation. My answer is always that Ivy Style comes with an inherent value system, and that if you represent that value system in whatever form it works for you, it is nearly impossible to be inauthentic. Mr. Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke was kind enough to pen this essay on one of those values. -JB
There can be little disagreement that we live in unsavory times when, it seems, anger, intolerance, the unreasonable, and the intentionally corrosive rule the roost. But whatever happened to common decency, civility, and courtesy? And how might we revive and carry these values forward into the 21st century? We might gain traction by quietly cultivating those values more consistently ourselves, and lead through the example we set with our behavior. If we model greater empathy and understanding in our own daily interactions, then others might pick up the torch in imitation. With that goal in mind, here are several related points to help foster greater kindness at large.
First, we need to hold ourselves to higher standards when it comes to cultivating habits of common decency, civility, and courtesy toward others. Sure, the egocentric, entitled undertow of 21st century life seems to encourage otherwise, but it might be more beneficial to step back and think about what we’re doing. My son’s school motto when he was in kindergarten provides relevant advice: Be proactive. Make good choices. Stop and think. So, instead of emitting that all too familiar piercing screech of righteous indignation that dominates our social and cultural discourse in 2021, how about we use our heads and reach out to others with more grace, tolerance, and benevolence? That might enable us to move beyond the decidedly unpleasant impasse at which we now stand.
On that note, we ought to establish the habit of metacognition in our efforts to practice, model, and hopefully revive the values of common decency, civility, and courtesy. Metacognition is simply a fancy term for thinking about one’s approach. It is something I ask my students to do each week with the feedback I provide on their individual assignments and larger collaborative projects. For our purposes, it is useful for us to pause routinely and reflect on how we come across in our interactions with others. What sort of impression do we leave in our wake? I’ll stick out my own neck and admit that there are probably plenty of ways I could do better. What about you?
We get so wrapped up in ourselves that common decency, civility, and courtesy get short shrift all too often. It would be more helpful for all of us to take stock once in a while though and have an internal dialog with ourselves about how we might improve when it comes to the practice of kindness. Remember, we tend to get back what we give to people. Karma in other words. Taking a few quiet concrete steps toward greater consideration for others, altruism even, might influence those around us to conduct themselves in a like way. Short of becoming hermits, a more consistent effort to treat each other with greater kindness is worth pursuing.
Hey, I make mistakes too, but let’s resolve to treat others in the same way we would like to be treated. We’ve heard that before, but we don’t always practice it, so the point bears repetition. After all, there can be few who wish to be treated like we are disposable and inconsequential. Whether it is someone we share our dwelling with and see everyday, or whether it’s the cashier ringing up our groceries at the supermarket, I’ll wager that most of us want to be treated with a modicum of kindness and respect. Even in passing. Wouldn’t it make more sense to extend that same courtesy to others then? If, for instance, we can make that homeless person’s life a little nicer by responding to their attempt to engage with a kind, compassionate reply, why not?
Moreover, we can address the daily interpersonal challenges life tosses at us with more poise than has become customary. Look, I get it. It can be frustrating to get bounced around a call center on the far side of the world when you dial customer service. Heck, it’s not unheard of to speak with someone right here in the U.S. whose accent makes it clear that English isn’t their native tongue. But come on! What do nasty comments, threats, or screaming at someone trying to assist us achieve besides hurting that person’s feelings and raising our own blood pressure?
Isn’t it preferable to remain kind and civil, so that service rep can resolve our issue? Of course we are all pressed for time, but let’s avoid being unreasonable or downright nasty at the drop of a hat. There is a person on the other side of that exchange, remember. Demonstrating good will, by contrast, will not hurt us and costs nothing. Besides, anyone observing from across the room — youngsters, college students, or 20-somethings — will absorb that kinder, gentler behavior and be more inclined to handle themselves in a similar way when met with unexpected complications. Showing others common decency, civility, and courtesy, even in frustrating situations, exhibits a basic level of respect for others and sets an admirable example for anyone else within earshot. How about it?
A further way that we can quietly model the values of common decency, civility, and courtesy in the process, is to let others see us being receptive to new people, ways of thinking, and experiences. Yeah, we all have our favorite ice cream, doughnut, or team, but variety is the spice of life. Do we really need to trash others, their ideas, and approaches? A more positive approach is to expose ourselves to new things now and then instead of wallowing in a putrid stew of fear, loathing, and hostility.
Remember, people around us notice the kind of behavior we exhibit and are inclined to imitate what they see. So, how about we broaden our own cultural palates, acquire new perspectives, and convey a more positive approach to life? Let’s make some new friends besides the parents of our children’s playmates. Let’s get to know people from different cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds. Let’s read a book that we might normally overlook. Let’s vary our news diet from time to time and get a different perspective.
We might also visit an art museum and learn something about the work we will see beforehand. Or try a new cuisine. Or even learn another language. You never know. Any one of these pursuits might open up broad new vistas. And when we finally get out of this Covid mess, let’s invite a new couple or two for an evening of grown-up conversation over a real sit-down dinner. In. The. Dining. Room. Let’s demonstrate quietly to those around us that a degree of curiosity about the world, with the greater level of sophistication that facilitates, is preferable to inert toxic insularity.
Another way in which we can revive and carry common decency, civility, and courtesy into the 21st century concerns how we react to others’ good news or good fortune. Sadly, bitter snark, putdowns, or muttered attempts at sarcasm or irony seem to be fairly typical whenever something good happens to someone else. I dare say that we have all heard the familiar “It must be nice to — fill in the blank –!” A kinder way to approach others’ triumphs, however, is to express subtle congratulations with a smile. A simple, “Hey, that’s great! Well done!” will do. It’s certainly kinder than an insult cloaked in humorous terms delivered through vocal fry, right?
When it comes to cultivating the practice of common decency, civility, and courtesy, we cannot forget that presentable attire is part of the equation. How we dress is a direct indicator of our consideration and respect for the setting, occasion, and people involved. Let’s strive, once in a while at least, for a bit more elegance and sophistication in our dress than has become typical. Don a sports jacket, tie, creased pants, and pair of leather shoes with matching belt now and then. It won’t hurt. On the contrary, doing so feels good, puts a spring into our step, and gets us in the right frame of mind for making things happen and getting things done. Let’s not somehow confuse a polished appearance with genuine hardship.
Finally, when others see us dressed nicer than average, it sets a positive example. Especially for any kids in the picture. After all, there are times when something dressier than the ubiquitous cargo pants and grubby hoodie is called for. It does children good to see Ol’ Dad looking more pulled together occasionally and conveys that there remain events for which tailored attire is most appropriate. Efforts to dress better than has become the accepted norm dovetail nicely with our aim to revive, reinvigorate, and model common decency, civility, and courtesy via our conduct.
Keep in mind that more conscious practice of these values does not mean we are trying to be better than others. Rather, we are simply trying to become the best versions of ourselves in an understated way. No jumping up and down or shouts of “Look at me! Look at me!” are necessary. But if we mindfully practice greater kindness ourselves, children, family, work colleagues, and maybe even unfamiliar passersby might be more inclined to follow suit, making life gentler for everyone in the process.
Consider this related point. Kindness, while highly contagious, is nevertheless healthy. No vaccines, masking, social distancing, or lockdowns required. It feels good to be kind and, by the same token, to receive kindness. Best of all, we can practice it anytime, anywhere, or in any situation. That is something no one can argue against.
I suggest that we need the values of common decency, civility, and courtesy now more than ever. A concerted effort to breathe new life into these values can move human society forward in a beneficial way. If we lead through quiet example, that endeavor might create a path out of the dark malaise in which we find ourselves. Restoring common decency, civility, and courtesy to their rightful place might, in addition, help us ratchet things down several notches when it comes to the caustic socio-political discourse of our era. Put another way, kindness could help us get back on our feet.
My proposal is not meant to suggest that readers do not already practice common decency, civility, and courtesy to some degree. But we can (and must) do better.
Heinz-Ulrich von Boffke teaches critical thinking, collaboration, project management and a variety of other 21st century employability skills at Michigan State University through courses on Film Noir, Horror Movies, Global Cinema, Scandinavian and Nordic film, literature, crime fiction, and drama. Husband to The Grand Duchess and father to The Young Master, in his copious free time Heinz-Ulrich also enjoys cross-country skiing, road cycling, playing the guitar, and adding to an already large collection of 30mm military miniatures that represent armies of The Seven Years War in Europe (1756-1763).