Microcourtesies are a counterweight to microaggressions. They are easy and life-affirming. Let’s embrace them.
I’ve been in London a lot recently. Travelling on the red buses, I have been struck by something that never used to happen. Many passengers exiting a bus say ‘thank you, driver,’ as they step off.
This is a good thing. Bus drivers like to be appreciated. People doing the thanking feel good about acknowledging a service.
I kept an eye out for other “microcourtesies”. On a busy road in north London, when a car stopped at a zebra crossing to allow a pedestrian to cross, I saw the pedestrian raise a hand, while crossing the road, to acknowledge the driver’s action.
This wasn’t strictly necessary. The law obliged the driver to stop at the crossing if someone demonstrated a wish to cross the road.
But the action brightened the world a little, for both the pedestrian and the driver (who raised a hand to acknowledge the acknowledgement). There are kind human beings out there, who acknowledge each other’s existence, they thought. The world is not all bad.
This phenomenon is not limited to any country or geography. In Austria, for example, it is customary to greet a shopkeeper when you enter a small shop, and to say ‘goodbye’ when you leave. I can’t see a downside to this. Viennese tram-drivers often wait a bit for a late-arriving passenger to board. This would be a good habit for tram- and bus-drivers worldwide to adopt. In the north of England, supermarket cashiers are more talkative and friendly than those in the south. In country areas of Turkey, it is customary to invite complete strangers into your house for a cup of tea.
Nick Cave – The Red Hand Files
I discussed the concept of microcourtesies with a wise woman recently. She alerted me to a blog post on a similar theme on the “Red Hand Files”, a blog by Australian rocker Nick Cave. The title of the post is “What is the point in life?“. Cave – whose music I have long admired without being aware of his philosophical side – muses that ‘a vast, collective grief’ is humankind’s shared condition. Despite this, he says, ‘happiness and joy continue to burst through’. ‘Despite our collective state of loss, and our potential for evil,’ he writes, ‘there exists a great network of goodness, knitted together by countless everyday human kindnesses.’
‘These often small, seemingly inconsequential acts of kindness,’ Cave continues, ‘that Soviet writer Vasily Grossman calls ‘petty, thoughtless kindness’, or ‘unwitnessed kindness’, bind together to create a subterranean and vanquishing Good that counterbalances the forces of evil and prevents suffering from overwhelming the world.‘
‘Unwitnessed kindnesses.’ What a great concept. Maybe ‘unwitnessed kindnesses’ could be related to microcourtesies.
Another wise reader of this post drew my attention to this “tangentially related” 2017 post about “Different Worlds,” exploring how different people experience life utterly differently and what we can learn from this. Also worth a look, though it’s a bit long.
Finally, a clinical psychologist I met the other day pointed out to me the work of William Madsen on “mattering“. The concept, she noted, was in a similar vein to microcourtesies. Madsen defines “mattering” as engaging the people we serve in ways that they feel “welcomed, honored, and experience themselves as active participants with significant influence in helping efforts”.
Sounds good to me.
Microcourtesies: what you can do
The perceived awfulness of the world makes us all feel glum at times, or even overwhelmed. Many of the things we feel are needed to improve the world seem beyond our powers to change. Maybe we are lucky enough to live in a democracy and can vote to change our leaders regularly. Our leaders may even change with astonishing frequency without our voting. But we still feel powerless.
So one thing we can do is to exhibit microcourtesies – or what Nick Cave refers to as ‘unwitnessed kindness’ or ‘petty, thoughtless kindnesses’. Doing so may make you feel better. It may make others feel better, too.
Let’s get started.
Happiness and microcourtesies: other resources
I mentioned earlier ‘the perceived awfulness of the world’. I said ‘perceived’ because, as I wrote in a post in 2017, on many measures, the world is getting better, not worse. It’s not necessarily the world that is the problem, but our perceptions. Check it out.
It includes a fabulous interactive graphic by Hans Rosling’s Gapminder foundation, showing how living standards across the world have soared over the years.
If you fancy reading more about happiness, try my post “How to be happy: 16 great posts to browse“. Comments welcome.
I recently set off to walk from Highgate to St Pancras at 4 a.m. No bus was due. But at 4.05 a bus rumbled along just as I was passing a bus stop, so I boarded, greeting the driver as I did so. I was the only passenger.
At 4.12 in Kentish town, a vociferous man boarded. Was he high, drunk, or simply voluble?
‘Driver!’ he shouted, ‘the app says that this bus isn’t due until 4.37.’
The driver opened up his security door and shrugged. ‘What do you want me to do?’ he said. ‘Call the police?’
‘You should call the people who run the app,’ the vociferous man replied.
‘They’re all in bed,’ the driver said.
This struck me as splendid repartee for four o’clock in the morning. It was also good-natured, in a confused kind of way. The vociferous passenger disembarked in Camden Town. He thanked the driver as he got off.
I totally agree with you..the world is crazy now , everyone angry. Sad to think,Besides it make you feel good. no longer are happy or polite..It only takes a minute to smile, say thank you.
I agree on every count. It only takes a minute. You just have to get into that space inside your head to make it a habit.
South Africa has a lot of deadly highways with just two lanes but broad strips on both sides. Spotting a faster vehicle coming up behind, the slower driver is supposed to (and usually does) shift over onto the side strip so the faster one can go past. Then, the faster driver puts on the hazard lights to thank the slower one, and the slower one flashes headlights to say thanks for the thanks. This has been going on for years. Lately, British drivers (at least in the friendlier north) have started switching on their hazards to show thanks, e.g. to someone who has made space for them to join the stream of traffic. And for decades, British truck drivers on the motorways have flashed their headlights to tell a truck overtaking them that they have cleared the front of their vehicle and are safe to pull back in to the slow lane. Small kindnesses, and acknowledging them, are indeed good.
All excellent examples of what I am talking about. The idea of saying thanks for acts of road traffic courtesy in particular is a valuable counterweight to the general tenor of road rage.
I‘ve noticed how, when someone near me is feeling down or critical, that I start feeling this way, too. And entering a room or a shop with a genuine smile elicits the same back to me.
As social beings, I think it is our nature to be influenced by those around us. I find microcourtesies — a wave at the zebra stripes, letting someone off the tram ahead of you instead of jostling to be first, thanking a cashier — have tangible, immediate effects around us.
I recall a recent article in The New York Times how shallow interactions with people we encounter briefly — shopkeepers, garbage collectors, pharmacist — correlate with fewer reports of depression, and more satisfactory lives. Practicing microcourtesy seems powerful.
Tanya I think this is all spot-on. Most of us are much influenced by the mood of those around us – on a superficial and, I suspect, on a profound level.