Curious about Courtesy

I had an interesting conversation the other day.  My mother had just flown in from Texas and she was regaling me with stories of navigating the airport with carry-on luggage and a broken hand.

arm in cast
Photo by Daquella Manera

While she was riding the tram, she noticed another woman with too much stuff to carry and an arm in a cast.  As they exited the train together, my mom gave her a cast salute and said something like “It’s tough with only one hand, isn’t it?” to which the woman replied “I know.  And no one will help me,” and they parted ways.

Now here’s where it got interesting (to me at least).  My mother thought her attitude was silly, you shouldn’t expect help if you don’t ask for it.  I thought the other train passengers had been kind of rude not to offer.

there's a giraffe at the door
I couldn't think of an appropriate image for "courtesy" so here's a picture of a giraffe politely asking to come inside, courtesy of Push The Button

Both are valid opinions.  It is silly to expect that strangers will jump to your aid if you just stand around looking pitiful.  They might not realize that you need help, since they don’t live in your head.  Or they might not want to insult you by implying that you are less than able to do something yourself.  It isn’t that hard to turn to someone and say “I’m sorry, would you mind holding this for a minute?  I’m having a little trouble here.”  Most people would have no trouble agreeing to help.

On the other hand, if you were raised to be the type of person who gives up their bus seat to someone who needs it more, you sort of feel like the contract should go both ways when you are the one in need.  I still remember explaining the ‘rules’ to me the first time we rode the bus together.  If there are no more seats, you offer yours to the elderly, pregnant women and injured people.  Hopefully not all at once.  I’ve been pregnant twice, and I joined the ranks of the injured for a while a few years ago.  During those times I was on the receiving end of a number of random acts of kindness.  I’m not trying to say that there are no courteous people out there.  However, I can remember a few occasions where I ended up silently screaming “Holy crap people, can you not see that I need help here?”

I don’t think I ever felt entitled to help, and I would have asked for it had I been able.  But have you ever been in so much pain and so frustrated that your brain is incapable of remembering the steps involved in politely asking for assistance?  I think that’s why we had rules of courtesy, so that everyone knew what roles they should play.

I think the issue stems from the fact that we have come to value independence over etiquette.  If a young man offers his seat to an older lady, there is the possibility that she will yell at him for thinking that she is too old and feeble to stand.  If an older gentleman holds a door for a lady, she might turn out to be a cranky feminist who will be irritated by the gesture.  Maybe the problem isn’t that people are forgetting how to make a courteous gesture, we’re just forgetting how to accept a courtesy gracefully.

I don’t know.  I don’t want this to sound like a “What’s the matter with kids these days” thing.  There are a lot of kind people out there, of all ages.  I just feel like etiquette has fallen into a grey area and I want to know where other people stand.

So how about it?  Any thoughts?

By [E]SaraB

Glass artisan by day, blogger by night (and sometimes vice versa). SaraB has three kids, three pets, one husband and a bizarre sense of humor. Her glass pendants can be found at if you're interested in checking it out.

8 replies on “Curious about Courtesy”

I think deciding what level of courtesy is appropriate can be a regional thing. When I lived in the South I never had to lift a finger to get my baggage off the carousel, into the overhead compartment, onto a conveyor belt etc. It was understood that men help ladies of all ages, lest we overtire ourselves (or something). When I moved to the Pacific Northwest I was a little shocked at first that I had to, ya know, do stuff myself. Whatever, no biggie.That said, it should be universal to always offer to help someone injured, elderly, or pregnant. They earned your help and can always turn you down if they don’t need it.

I offer help, but I ask first, do not jump in. It comes from my polite Chinese upbringing (no not Tiger mothering). And my husband is Japanese, so we’re both like that.

On the other hand I get a little self defensive when men want to jump in and help me because I am short and female. I know you mean well, but it’s okay, dude, I can carry my own stuff. How about we split it evenly?

I love the giraffe.

I generally will give up my seat, hold doors, etc. for people, but at the same time… right now I’m really not doing well myself, though I look completely healthy. I literally would not be able to stand on a bus with even a small bag (I tore an abdominal muscle, so my core muscles basically are worthless right now).

I’d never ask someone else to give up a seat, because you might not know why they’re sitting. Working retail, I can’t even count the number of times someone who has too much stuff says “Could you hold this?” and shoves stuff at me that’s way over my weight limit (about 5 pounds right now). Fortunately, they’ve all been understanding when I ask them to put the items on the counter.

I’m a helper. I like feeling useful and I like letting other people know that someone will be there, even a complete stranger on occasion.

I too give up my seat on the bus or el when necessary. I say excuse me even in the loudest concerts because it just seems right.

But, I can also be a raging bitch to those who aren’t showing some courtesy. I’ve told high school boys to get their asses up so cute little old people can sit down. I’ve told big dudes to take their damn backpacks off so people can get by them on the trains and buses.

So, I guess I’m not totally courteous!

My own stance is to offer to help, always. Four years of Miss Manners classes had it beaten into my brain, so its second nature. Also, I broke my foot a couple of summers ago and the people who would offer me a seat on the bus were saviors to me, and I attempt to pay that kindness forward.
At the same time, I am in the South were courtesy is expected so I’ve never had to deal with people being put out by it.

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