Sunday, August 10, 2014
Civility costs you nothing
Does treating someone badly warrant a lack of civility in return?
A reader from Ontario, Canada, and her spouse were going through a rough patch with her teenage daughter. The problem was nothing extraordinary, but simply the type of behavior many parents of teens face as their children struggle for independence. Suddenly, a usually compliant child has turned into a young adult who wants to make decisions on his/her own. Some of these decisions can upset parents.
Because the reader was consumed by her daughter's behavior, she found herself more distracted than usual.
"When I was at the post office, a young girl -- 14 or so -- held the door open for me," she wrote. "I was so distraught I could not respond."
When no "thank you" was forthcoming from the reader, the teen said in a very sour voice, "Well, thank yoooooooou!" In light of what was going on in the reader's life at the time, she now wishes she'd the presence of mind to tell the girl what holding that door had meant to her.
It's not unusual for people to become distracted by daily concerns to the point of forgetting to acknowledge the small acts of kindness around them. The reader is correct: The right thing would have been to stop fretting about her daughter long enough to thank the girl for her kindness in holding the door.
Still, people make mistakes. Years ago, when I was shopping before work at the original Filene's Basement in downtown Boston, a fellow shopper shouted at me after I'd passed him in the aisle.
"Don't you say 'excuse me'?" he asked. When I looked at him in confusion, he shouted for all to hear, "The guy just hit me with his briefcase and he doesn't bother to say 'excuse me'!" I was certain he was correct and that my overstuffed briefcase must have struck him as I walked by, but I'd been completely oblivious.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't know." The apology didn't satisfy him, but each of us went on our way.
Did the reader's missed "thank you" call for a snarky response from the young door holder? No. The right thing would have been for the teen to simply hold the door and recognize that she'd done something nice for someone. A "thank you" would have been appropriate, but the lack of one doesn't diminish the kindness of her action. Her words did, turning a kind act into a churlish hurl of words.
Be kind, but don't turn on someone if they're not kind in return. Their actions should not alter your original intent. Some people, like the reader, are simply preoccupied and most often do not let acts of kindness pass unnoticed.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications programat Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin
Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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