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Uncommon Courtesy
Jon Lebkowsky, 11 Oct 04

I was just blogging something about Joi Ito, and I was searching for a descriptive phrase when "uncommon courtesy" popped into my head. Joi has been accomplishing a lot over the last few years, and his uncommon courtesy helps account for his success in bringing people together. Tickling the back of my brain when I thought of this was the origin of the phrase. In the early 80s, Stewart Brand founded Uncommon Courtesy: School of Compassionate Skills, about which I could find few references online, primarily an entry in Stewart's CV, which has this entry:

1982-83, Founded Uncommon Courtesy: School of Compassionate Skills, which gave sessions on such subjects as "Creative Philanthropy," "Business as Service," "Street Saint Skills."
I'd like to dig into this more. In a divided and increasingly cruel world a commitment to uncommon courtesy seems sensibly world-changing. This doesn't come naturally to me; I'm one of the least courteous people in the world... which is probably why I need to be thinking about it. How about you? (I'd appreciate any pointers to online resources based on the original training, and any anecdotes about practicing courtesy that you'd care to add in comments would be most welcome).

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Comments

Coincidentally, for totally random reasons, I spent a few minutes earlier today talking with an Irish gentleman of the old school. He was funny, charming and extremely courteous -- disarmingly well-mannered, in a way of which few of my peers seem capable.

I think courtesy -- skill at acknowledging the human dignity of those around you, whatever the circumstances -- is indeed a worldchanging skill...


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 11 Oct 04

Oh, re: my peers, I hope it's taken for granted that I *don't* consider *myself* very capable in this department, either. Indeed, I'm a pretty ill-mannered brute.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 11 Oct 04

Could Miss Manners be the most subversive worldchanger yet?

Back before the 2000 election, my interest in the field of Non-Violent Communication (NVC) was waxing. It quickly waned with the election outcome, however. Deciding which development betrays naivete on my part, however, is a matter of perspective.

NVC is interesting in that it assumes that no preconception will yield the resolution to a conflict. It's not so much about being polite, as it is about not pidgeonholing others (or yourself).


Posted by: Enoch Root on 12 Oct 04

Remember that all dueling cultures have excellent manners. They had to 'cause the consequences for being a prick was being pricked by the end of a steel blade. And this is perhaps one reason why the nuclear age was so good for the diplomatic biz (that paradigm of conflict resolution now totally shot thanks to a post 911 world where compromise and negotiation means little.) So manners can hide a great deal of violence and hypocrisy.

I confess I grew up in a household and culture where manners are important. My mum is Miss Manners incarnate, an evangelist of sorts, which I thought was weird. So while I had no choice but to cultivate good manners, the rebellious side of me thought her messages had to be a bunch of Bo-Bo nonsense. That is, until I started living overseas. Turns out manners can make a huge difference in getting things done. I've noticed being courteous goes a long way in the global biz scene. It's also de rigeur in most cultures outside of the US. Do business in Japan, Brazil, Africa, and India and many uncommon courtesies are expected and noticed if not done.

In France, manners are just standard, essential, daily living skills -- the social lubricant that enables the smooth functioning of life. Manners have a social value, and like many things, it's double-edged. For instance, manners enable effective public lying. They allow us to skate over sticky realities about human interactions, messy facts that if exposed might tip the balance of civility. These lies nonetheless cajole people in the right direction and provide a comforting structure. Paris, while much changed in the past 5 years, still has a bad rep for people with bad attitudes. But I've since learned that most bad attitude experiences reported by Americans in France, ironically enough, have usually stemmed from their bad manners. Take this scenario: tourist, a little freaked because they don't know the language and are not "in contro", barging into a shop and blurting out "where is X?" without saying "Bonjour" and the usual proper greeting protocol which is about acknowledging people. This in turn triggers a Gallic reaction, which starts a downward spiral of human behaviour on both sides.

I think what you are talking about is a step beyond just good manners. While manners might be a good bridge to uncommon courtesies, what you are talking about is perhaps more philosophically tied to the "Non Zero Sum" ethos (see Robert Wright, http://www.nonzero.org/). Some people call this trying to create a "gift culture." Kevin Kelly has also written about this. Check his website. He talks about biking across the country and just trusting that random acts of kindness would emerge every day. And they did.


Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 12 Oct 04

I'm by and large a courteous person, and it seems to have often paid off. There seems to be a certain karma (so-to-speak) to things, even if the payoff is not immediate. Perhaps it is just a trick of the mind and what one pays attention to when one is being kind and corteous.

However, I do have an anectdote to the contrary: my boss and i came to our hotel to find that it had been overbooked, and neither of us had a room. I watched several corteous and forgiving people in line before us get sent away to different hotels. My boss however screamed at them we ended up staying in the hotel after all (where there were supposedly no rooms) in much nicer digs then we would have otherwise ended up with.

I've been loath to take any morals from that story however.


Posted by: adrian cotter on 12 Oct 04

It's funny--when I lived in Oregon, the generally insistent politeness of most daily interactions twanged my northeast-bred nervous system something awful.

But I've actually missed some of that courtesy since moving back east. New York really *is* a pretty rude place in its lacks of pleases and thankyews. And yet people who really step outside norms of interaction--yelling at a counter clerk, say, or doing one of the thousand things that can make a subway ride that much worse--really stand out. Some sort of commonly understood courtesy is essential to getting by in such a crowded and polyglot place.


Posted by: Emily Gertz on 12 Oct 04



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