Graciousness was once highly prized in our culture, especially in women. Simple courtesy became second nature for girls by an early age; and manners were cultivated alongside music and languages in every true lady.
The practice of this esteemed virtue often resulted in prejudice and oppressive. And yet, I wonder if in this case, we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. As we have thrown off the chains of forced grace, have we limited our ability to live graciously by choice and intent?
Allow me to give an example.
A few days ago, while checking out at the grocery, I was greeted by a young cashier who could best be described as snotty. Approximately 17 years old, her rude demeanor and unrelenting scowl put only one thought in my mind. “Honey, didn’t your mama raise you right?”
Such behavior is so commonplace these days that I am typically desensitized to it. However, this girl’s attitude struck me that day because it came on the heels of another encounter with a cashier.
This time, I was rude one. Sparing you the gory details, suffice it to say this woman bent over backwards to get me what I wanted in just the way I wanted it in spite of the fact that I was, shall we say, undeserving of her help.
Most importantly, she did all this with a smile on her face, a pleasant demeanor and an ease that let me know this was no mere public persona. Grace was as natural to her as breathing. And her positive behavior was contagious, infecting my face with a smile before I left.
The contrast between these two incidents gave me pause. The second cashier acted as a mirror for my own lack of grace, and a reminder of the frequency with which disrespectful clashes occur in our world. Cashier number one, on the other hand, was a role model for far rarer path of politeness. I began to think about what is it that causes even women who should know better – my mama did teach me a thing or two – to so easily forgo graciousness.
The results of my informal poll suggest that women are less gracious today due to a lack self-confidence. A confident woman would have no need to tear down another person regardless of the circumstances. She would have a strong enough sense of self to deal with another’s negativity without succumbing to it. Disrespect of others is a sign these women lack respect for themselves.
A couple of women suggested that gracious indicates weakness. In a world where women are too often still striving to be taken seriously, being gracious might be mistaken for a lack of assertiveness. Women, they posited, become overly assertive to avoid being seen as vulnerable.
Two respondents thought women today are too busy to be polite. Rudeness, they said, comes about when women try to do too much in too short a time. When overwhelmed with schedules and obligations, graciousness takes on a low priority.
Finally, one lone woman said that people today are simply more interested in their own lives than they are in the lives of others. If being respectful to another produces a consequence that a woman wants, then she will do it. If not, she will do what serves her interests even if that means someone else gets hurt along the way.
All of these positions have merit and may be true to some extent. But I would like to suggest another possibility that my friends did not explore. Gracious living is less common in our culture because we are socially lazy. We are used to making the least effort possible in our social interactions and often cringe at the thought of being expected to try harder.
This should come as no surprise to us. After all, the very forces that were designed to make communication easier also make much of our communication increasingly superficial. Why write a letter when you can e-mail? Why make a phone call when you can text? Why read the book when you can see the movie? Why speak to a real person when you can play a video game? Why go out when everything you need can come to your computer screen?
It does not take much time from even the busiest schedule to smile or offer a kind word. “Have a nice day” is hardly a phrase that signifies weakness in its speaker. Instead, it’s far more likely that we fail to give one another basic human respect for the same reason we hesitate to get out of our chairs to change the channel on the TV. When we are primed to expect and prefer easy interactions, it takes a great deal of focus and commitment to do otherwise.
Much as easy fast food meals will not nourish our bodies in the healthiest way, lazy social manners that center on the immediate gratification of our own needs will never feed our souls, or those of the people we meet. They will, however, often reveal the worst elements of our individual characters.
Just as we must flex our physical muscles to make them stronger, we will only become more gracious by acting more graciously. Begin to challenge social laziness with one small step. Spend one entire day with this resolve. “No matter what others give to me, I will give them respect. I will live graciously.”
Your graciousness just may become contagious too!
Dr. Janice Staab is a philosophical counselor and life coach. For more information on her services or to schedule your free consultation, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit her at www.lifesignscoaching.com or on Facebook at http://facebook.com/lifesignscoaching.