Why Courtesy Counts

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"Don't sweat the small stuff" is common advice for people who become easily stressed or get significantly upset when minor obstacles arise or minor aggravations occur.

In families, however, in relationships between marriage partners or between parent and child, certain "small stuff" should be sweated because it is really "big stuff" in disguise. One example is ACTS OF COURTESY.

Courtesy behaviors are those small gestures that define how thoughtfully people treat each other on a daily basis. For example, in a caring relationship would you rather be told to give help or ASKED to give help? Would you rather be interrupted or be LISTENED to when saying something important? Would you rather be ignored or be NOTICED for the special effort you made? Would you rather be criticized or be COMPLIMENTED when performing your best? Would you rather be taken for granted or be THANKED for doing a favor? Would you rather be untouched by a loved one when feeling sad or be HELD? Asking, listening, noticing, complimenting, thanking, holding, are just a few acts of common courtesy that all contribute to quality of family life by causing the giver to act thoughtfully and the receiver to feel treated with consideration.

To give the concept of courtesy more impact, put these questions in another way. What can happen when courtesy is omitted? How would you like to live in a family relationship where you were continually TOLD WHAT TO DO, were INTERRUPTED when trying to speak, were IGNORED when having made a special effort, were CRITICIZED when performing your best, were TAKEN FOR GRANTED when doing a favor, and were left UNTOUCHED when feeling sad? For most people, the answer would be: "I wouldn't like living in this kind of relationship at all!" Lack of basic courtesy can hurt people's feelings.

There are, however, three problems with confronting lack of courtesy.

1) Each little insult is hard to speak up about without feeling foolish. "I don't want to appear oversensitive by making a big deal over something so small!" So omissions of courtesy are often let go without comment, the slight disregarded, and the emotional injury suppressed.

2) Too small to mention but too hurtful to ignore, however, over time these omissions can have a cumulative emotional effect. They can build until "the last straw" finally breaks the camel's back. "That's it, I've had it! You never listen to a word I say, and you never credit anything I do! I'm fed up with being taken for granted!"

3) These lacks of consideration are also important because they signify important symbolic qualities in the relationship that are sorely missed. For example, a lack of listening can signify a lack of ACCEPTANCE: "You're not open to hearing what I have to say!" A lack of simple thanks can signify a lack of APPRECIATION: "You don't value anything I do!" A lack of touch can signify a lack of AFFECTION: "You don't love me anymore!" Or a lack of compliments can signify a lack of APPROVAL: "Nothing I do ever pleases you!"

The observance of courtesy behaviors contributes much to quality of family life just as omissions of courtesy can erode that quality in painful ways. Therefore, let other people in the family know what courtesy behaviors mean a lot to you. "It's important to me that you make an effort to be on time because that shows that you RESPECT me and the agreements we have made." And when denied a simple courtesy, brave whatever foolishness you feel and speak up. "I know you're not that late, but when you're going to be delayed more than 20 minutes getting home from work, please give me a call so I don't worry that you're not all right."

Courtesy counts because it conveys caring in a host of little ways, because omissions can hurt, and because these specific acts are laden with symbolic value. "Small stuff" is really big stuff in disguise.

In some families, working parents extend more courtesy to co-workers and customers than to each other and their children at home. Thus the child's telling question: "How come you treat strangers at your job better than your family at home?"

President Kennedy's notion of "grace under pressure" is a worthwhile family goal. At the worst of times strive to act your best, keeping courtesy up under duress or when life has got you down. In families, if parents will model treating each other and their children as GUESTS IN THE RELATIONSHIP, the code of common courtesy is likely to be upheld.

© Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. 2002. For permission to use, contact the author.
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