A few nights ago I found a wallet and promptly returned it to the address on the driver’s license inside. The person was so shocked at the good deed that she refused to open the front door at first – she thought it was a trick. Sadly, that’s the society we live in – being nice and polite and doing good things are so rare that we don’t trust in them when they happen. That worries me and it should worry you too.
But it’s not just the instances of people going out of their way to return a wallet that have stalled – it’s basic politeness and helpfulness that are missing. For example, I went to Costco yesterday. I got a chair for my new desk. It’s quite heavy and comes in a big box that’s hard to handle for a person of my height. I had a ridiculously hard time getting the box into my car. I visibly struggled with the weight as well as with getting the box to fit in my trunk and then my front seat. It took a good 15 minutes to finally manage. In the meantime, the two men whose cars were parked on either side of my car came by. Both stopped and looked at me struggle because at those points in time I was blocking access to their cars. One of them checked his email for the 4-5 minutes he waited. The other drank his coffee and even said to me “That’s gonna be a tight fit.” Neither offered to help.
Now please don’t assume that I’m complaining about a man not helping a woman – I’m not. I’m commenting on one person not helping another person when they very clearly needed help and when the other person is able to offer such help (both guys appeared healthy, were able to pack their own items into their cars and neither was in a hurry). If the situation was reversed, and it has been many times before, I would have helped. Because it’s the normal, human thing to do. At least that’s the way I was taught…
Ever since the wallet thing happened three days ago, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about all the everyday behaviors which I consider normal, but that now either don’t happen, or people get suspicious of them when they do happen. Like returning wallets, helping with groceries, holding a door open for someone or giving up your seat on the bus. What has happened to make people so self-centered? Why is politeness dead (or at least dying)?
The reasons why I think politeness is dead
I don’t have the answer, but these are my working theories for the death of chivalry and politeness:
1. The negative (and perhaps unintended) effect of feminism. I’m a huge proponent of women’s rights; frankly, I’m baffled as to why it’s still “a thing” in 2014 – shouldn’t this be a non-issue by now? Shouldn’t women just have equal rights by now? That’s a whole other blog post… Unfortunately, I feel like maybe feminism has had another interpretation that’s partially causing this lack of politeness and helpfulness in society. Back in the day, opening doors and helping with groceries were considered acts of chivalry, acts of a man helping a woman. In a feminist society women don’t “need” men, which perhaps also translated into these simple acts of politeness and helpfulness.
2. Growth of modernism. I grew up in Poland. In the “old country” these acts of basic politeness were taught to all children, regardless of gender. We were taught to always help, to say please and thank you, to open doors, to give up our seat, to help others, to do the right thing. A lot of those values were grounded in religious and cultural practices passed on from generation to generation. Modernist thought looks forward, not to the past. It focuses on the self, not on others. Many times what used to be considered tradition worth upholding is now seen as old fashioned and outdated. Maybe politeness and chivalry also got classified as “old school” and got pushed aside?
3. Consumerism. In the modern world everything is a good or a service you pay for. If there isn’t a whole profession for the thing you need done, you can always hop on TaskRabbit and pay someone to do pretty much anything for you – including go to the grocery store with you to help with the heavy bags. Slowly, but surely, we’ve been training people to think that everything has a price. Why should one of the guys help me get the box into my car when I can go to one of the attendants inside Costco and ask him for help. After all, they’re paid to do that, right?
So why is the death of politeness a problem?
In my opinion, politeness, chivalry, helpfulness – whatever you want to call it – is something that makes humans more caring, more empathetic. It’s a small way to connect us to other human beings, reminding us that we’re a society, that we need each other for the long run. Because we do. “Live together, die alone;” “No man is an island;” “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Pick your proverb! There’s a reason why there are so many to choose from… because they’re true!
There are a million forces pulling us apart from each other, adding conflict to our daily lives. The little acts of kindness like opening doors or helping with a big box push us back together and bring us that much closer to each other. Maybe this is an old school way of thinking, but when I think back to the close-knit community I grew up in and then I think of my recent experiences and you know what? I’d pick the old school way of living every time. Back then I knew that people would be there for each other in good times and in bad. If something happened today and my family needed help, I don’t have that same confidence in the world we live in…