Despite its age, power and charm, common courtesy is found wanting in society. In fact, common courtesy has been distinctly lacking in any society since the term was coined. From Chapuys, who wrote to his imperial masters in the sixteenth century, common courtesy was sometimes distinctly lacking from the court of Henry VIII; the Earl of Rochester was vilified for his discourteous acts in the seventeenth century; the Prince Regent was widely disliked by parliament and the public for his ignorance as to how a gentleman in England should act in the 1800s; Victorian literature is littered with guides on how gentlemen should conduct themselves toward ladies, fellows and colleagues; and finally, only last week someone somewhere was rude, discourteous and bad mannered. If common courtesy was at all common, why has it always been so rare?
Common courtesy, unlike like common sense, can indeed be passed on from one gentleman to another; it is not something that is birthed at the moment a baby first says “please” – it is not an innate phenomena. However, like all great weapons of charm, it is rather tricky to define. Everyone should, at least, have some concept of it. To separate common courtesy from manners, politeness and etiquette, one needn’t have the best of the latter three in order to have the ultimate skill of the first.
An example of an absence of common courtesy is not RSVP’ing to an invite when you have been requested to do so. Or, should you have attended the party, not thanking the host for the invitation, chewing with your mouth open (or even speaking with your mouth full), not engaging with other guests or, when doing so, texting during conversations or, simply, not having popped your phone on to silent. All discourtesies which should be common sense, hence, “common courtesy”.
To be courteous is to be observant and considerate. When on a train and you need to cough, do so with your hand over your mouth. It is common sense not to spread germs and an act of common sense when the needs of others have been considered is an act of common courtesy. And that goes to show the concept’s timeless appeal.
Manners and modes of etiquette differ from country to country and can change over time. Common courtesy is common sense politeness and therefore as old as time itself. Aristophanes, the ancient Greek playwright, lampooned Greek politicians who were known for being selfish, discourteous and ill-mannered. Hop, skip and jump a few thousand years forward to the stage in nineteenth century London, and the comedies of manners were not only satirising the etiquettes of the day, but, particularly in the character of Mrs Cheveley, Wilde (in An Ideal Husband) showed the repercussions of being flagrantly sans any concept of common courtesy. Paul, in his letter to Titus, reminded Christians to show perfect courtesy to all people. Whizz this bang up to date, self-developmental guru Bryant McGill states: No one is more insufferable than he who lacks basic courtesy.
Why should a man striving to be different from other men in his quest for perfect gentlemanliness, utilise common courtesy when, in fact, everyone everywhere knows how to do it and should be doing it? Simply put, referring back to the start of this article, common courtesy is so very rarely practiced and indeed not at all common.
Have a look at the work place, the train station, the super market, the bar, the restaurant – watch for evidence of common courtesies from the people there. Being considered and courteous is noticed because of the lack of it from others. Not playing your music so loud your headphones become speakers will be appreciated. Saying “bless you” when a stranger sneezes shows a consideration for your fellow man. Thanking the barista at the coffee shop and wishing them well shows your interest in others. RSVP’ing even when you can’t make the function is the right thing to do. Giving someone all of your attention by turning your phone to silent is admired.
Not every man wants to be the perfect gentleman, but any man who is courteous is often considered one.