The Complexity of Courteous Behavior in Contemporary Society

Complexity of Social Rules
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There was a time when most people spent most of their lives surrounded by neighbors who had grown up near them and absorbed a similar set of stable cultural expectations. Now many people travel widely and many more conduct business and build friendships across long distances through electronic communications. Those who stay at home still have to cope with changing social rules. This adds richness and diversity to life, but it also adds opportunities for misunderstanding. When people meet each one carries a different set of assumptions about what courtesy looks like. Even when we mean well we often offend one another.

Culture Shock

© fotografiedk -
© fotografiedk –
People from different cultures may have different assumptions about how close people stand when they’re talking, how loudly they speak, how formally they address each other, what questions are polite and what questions are intrusive. It’s easy to get upset and to think that the other person is being deliberately rude or cold: “Why is he crowding me? Is he trying to intimidate me?” “Why does he keep backing away? Did I upset him? Does he think I smell bad? ” It takes a conscious effort to step back, look at our own unspoken rules and remember that the other person may be acting in good faith on a different set of rules.
In some cultures a hostess is expected to keep offering food to her guest until the guest says she doesn’t want any more. In others a guest is expected to take some of whatever her hostess offers, however often the offer is repeated. Some cultures express negative opinions fairly freely; others consider this rude and express disapproval with faint or vague positive statements. Unless these differences are understood and dealt with meals become interminable and conversations confusing.

Changing Times

Even within one country and culture changing social expectations complicate our attempts to be courteous. Some older people feel disrespected if younger people do not address them by their title and last name. Others feel that they are being excluded or held at a distance by being addressed formally. Some people, of both genders, assume that basic courtesy requires any man to hold a door open for any woman, or to offer her his seat on the bus; others feel that those behaviors are chauvinistic and patronizing. It’s easy to take offense if our attempts to be polite are treated as discourtesies. It’s sometimes helpful to address these misunderstandings openly, explain our intentions and learn how the other person wishes to be treated.

Etiquette and Courtesy

In today’s diverse, mobile and fragmented society we can’t assume that the people we meet will share our ideas of etiquette. But while etiquette varies across boundaries of age, class and ethnicity, courtesy is valued by all cultures. The will to attend to the other person, consider their wants and needs, welcome them and put them at ease, is as basic and necessary now as it ever was. If we hold onto this intention, become aware of our assumptions and remember that others assume different things, we can usually work through awkward moments to build constructive conversations and satisfying relationships.