My husband and I had been married two years before we visited his extended family in upstate New York. It was finally time for them to look me over and form a firsthand opinion of me as a new family member. We endured the rounds of visits, actually enjoying the reunions for Len and the new acquaintances for me.
We knew the hotline would be buzzing back to Phoenix, where Len’s mother was waiting for the report and evaluation. But we weren’t quite prepared for the final assessment. In addition to their general stamp of approval for me, the salient comment was, “They’re so polite to each other!”
It seemed odd to us that our habits of everyday courtesy would be remarkable to them. We were all raised to say “please” and “thank you,” phrases that seem absent from the conversation of most young people today.
I believe in courtesy, at home and in the larger world. I’m not talking major etiquette here—it’s not about the ritualized set of instructions you might want to study if you were heading for a business trip in a country with a totally different culture. It’s about the magic words I learned from Captain Kangaroo: “Abracadabra, please and thank you.”
Are politeness and manners artificial? You bet. But they give us ways to set aside aggression and dominance for a little while to interact with people we don’t know, from getting directions in a strange city to opening a conversation with a new acquaintance.
And at home, “please” and “thank you” are simple ways to encourage cooperation and express appreciation for friends and family many times every day. The relatives in upstate New York may have sensed something of which we weren’t aware: perhaps these are the real “three little words” that have helped Len and me stay happily married for 34 years.
I wish “you’re welcome” hadn’t given way to the “no problem” you hear regularly in its place these days. It has a slightly different tone that seems a little off to my ear. But language and customs change over time, and I must go with the flow. I hope changes in our culture don’t mean forsaking the little things that help us get along with each other. To all those who still teach courteous behavior to their children—thank you.
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