Politeness is More than Being Polite

Imagine a crisis-ridden, middle-aged poet/political animal being given a VIP tour of Hell by one of the most sagacious voices of Classical Antiquity. At one point, a semi-naked figure erupts from a tomb of raging flames. The abruptness and awkwardness of recognition are followed by a surprisingly cordial salutation. Surprising because the bewildered traveller and the eternally damned heretic are sworn enemies. More so when Mediterranean hot bloodedness is involved. (Yes, this points to stereotype which can be grossly unjust.) Yet their greeting is courteous, incandescent emotions firmly kept in check on both sides.

This is no macabre screenplay or gruesome fantasy on my part but the well-known Farinata episode in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Florentine epic written on the cusp of the Renaissance; and which still rocks even when reading in translation.  Purists may despair at such a blasphemous shortcut. But if a story wows in translation, it’s not hard to conclude how immeasurably immense the original is. Besides, how accessible is the medieval Florentine dialect?

For Dante wrote his magnificent opus in his very own vernacular – a daring and utterly defiant feat since epics at the time were demanded to be written in Latin. Vehemently throwing literary constraints out of the window, Dante went even further by taking Church dogma to task as well as seeking revenge (on paper at least) on his political opponents while grappling with his own road to redemption. Hence, the poem’s equal divisions into Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.

Farinata (Manente degli Uberti known as Farinata degli Uberti because of his blond looks) was a prime target because he was the mastermind behind Dante’s lifelong exile from Florence – a sentence deemed worse than death. You see, Dante belonged to the defeated faction in Florence’s civil war. Banishment plus denying a martyr’s status proved the sweetest cherry on the cake for his adversaries who kept up their tortuous tantalising act by offering a return on conditions they knew he would never accept. Dante vented his gall by relegating Farinata to the 6th circle of Hell   ̶   that’s three-quarters down his depiction of an increasingly harrowing infernal torment.

Nevertheless, the brief exchange between them is gentlemanly. Cynics may easily scoff at the veneer of respectability and cry ‘Sheer hypocrisy!’. That Farinata is not depicted in starkers easily rebuts any such surmise since this detail shows respect – no matter how begrudgingly it may have been bestowed. Meaning Dante gets his revenge in his poem without sinking low.

What a far cry from today’s all-over-the-place flaunting of uncivility!

Why do so many people find it hard to say ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘You’re welcome’? To be punctual. To knock the door before entering a room. To punctuate the workday with ‘Good morning/Good afternoon/Good evening’. To make way for someone entering a space, if they happen to be on their way out instead of barging in.  To apologise if they accidentally bump into you or have done something amiss.

As for table manners, I’m in no mood of a downer. It’s one thing if you have not been taught how to use your cutlery. To refuse to learn quite another when you are given the opportunity. Am I the misfit with no gizmo in hand as I gaze at the ubiquitous gluing to mobile phones spelling out loud and clear that people are no longer worth considering let alone listening too?  No wonder, the increasing affinity to AI. Giving your full attention when people speak to you has become so last century, in total contrast to the trendy belting out of an incessant string of insults. Well, being brash and boorish is not cool in my books.

That the explosion of social media over the past ten years unleashed the beast of hate-speech hell-bent on spewing venom without restraint is more than obvious. The mouldy rot, however, has been festering a long time. The erosion of good manners concatenates with the corrosion of feeling ashamed, of decent values, of trashing a moral compass, and the ridiculing of honesty. Also, the idolising of celebrities and ongoing love affair with self in tandem with playing god. As a result, the fuelling of self-dignity and self-pride has long lost its spark and consequently the power to ignite.

Admittedly the fine line between civilisation and barbarity is indeed tenuous as our long, violent history amply shows. Though intrigue and sleaze have always been intrinsic to politics, the vast majority of today’s politicians are immune to statesmanship. It does not take much thinking to realise that we are children of a millennia-accumulated accretion of conflict, including two world wars breaking out within twenty years of each other. But more in this vein is going to have to wait for another story.

I grew up in a middle-class home in which traditional British manners set the bar, though these were inevitably coloured by the impact of being born and bred in Malta. Like any other country, it is not easy to pitch the different degrees of the cross-cultural mix that imprint our historical and social divides. What is perhaps both baffling and fascinating is the way they shape the island’s tiny size. Nevertheless, irrespective of cultural nuances, home-background, and life experiences have long made it clear that manners are part of the bigger jigsaw puzzle of education, mindset, innate values and sense perception of life.

Being polite does not boil down to simply going through the motions of etiquette or, wearing the badge of privilege.  

One of the politest people I know is an illiterate mason who has long become a family friend. Being polite shows caring, respect and gentleness when you put people rather than yourself first – even when you are stressed out, pent up with frustration or, flat out with exhaustion.

Consequently, politeness also exercises patience – waiting without complaint (extremely difficult I know) and giving others the chance to speak up and listen to what they have to say whether you like and agree with them or not. Also, giving people the ‘benefit of the doubt’ without allowing yourself to be duped. Politeness steers clear from boastfulness and angry tones of voice, of returning favours and not always asking for them. Of not belittling people, no matter how right you may be or the gravity of their mistakes. Of expressing gratitude and of tolerating people who irritate you. Or of passing the buck and shirking responsibility. Of striving to be graceful and honouring dress codes. Of respecting people’s property and public spaces. Of having a sense of duty and regard for the community because you believe in promoting pleasantness and harmony. Of striving for excellence without treading on other’s people toes to get where you want to get. In other words, it’s all about bringing the best out of living among people.

And yet I would like to go a step further. What really inspired this piece is my pondering on Baldassare Castiglione ‘s The Book of the Courtier. 500 years old, this open-ended philosophical discussion about an ideal courtier’s virtú (read connoisseurship) sounds a truckload of moonshine in today’s world. But what never fails to strike me is the author’s equating of courtesy with an amalgam of courage, aesthetic sensibility, and moral standing, not merely with a show of good manners and attractive self-presentation.

I believe that this perception is dateless because we all know that the way we treat ourselves reflects the way we treat others and that respect is gained not earned. Francis Bacon once said, ‘A man without a sense of courtesy is an animal with human form.’ Sadly, the wholesale rubbishing of good manners denotes a devolving of the human species. Infinitely sad because in a world where everyone and everything must have a price tag, it does not cost anything to be polite.

Isn’t our fixation with value blinding us to what is beautiful and priceless?

Noemi Zarb
Noemi Zarb
Writing, teaching, marketing. I have pursued three totally different career paths with the power of words serving both as link and lynchpin. Now I dedicate most of my time to writing - a never-ending romance. Typical of content writing I have been and am still responsible for scripting webs, advertorials as well as full-length articles. As a feature/opinion writer, I have over 600 articles published in Malta's leading newspapers and magazines (and still counting) - an experience which honed my interviewing skills when I interviewed countless painters and people involved in the performance arts. I also have over two decades of teaching English Literature and Critical Thinking via Textual Analysis under my belt having prepared students for the IB Diploma in English Language and Literature as well as MATSEC, IGCSE and SEC examinations in English language and English Literature. TEFL sometimes punctuated my summer holidays. Dealing with young people keeps you young and I have truckloads of cherished memories of my past students My current writing continues to be inspired by what life throws at me together with my critical thinking of what goes on (or doesn’t) around me firing my sense perception and vice versa. Being immersed in the corporate world gives me endless opportunities to observe facets of human behavior which invariably have me brood over. Learning and thinking over what I learn is still my way forward.

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  1. Ti ringrazio Noemi. Il tema che tratti in questo articolo mi interessa particolarmente e mi entusiasma… ancora di più nel tuo sviluppo, non lascia margine al dubbio
    È un fattore umano, con il quale quotidianamente ci si trova ad avere a che fare, se non voglio essere superficiale o ipocrita…
    È avere e mantenere una propria identità… è amor proprio e rispetto per l’altro e per quello che ci circonda
    …una necessità interiore anche se non ricevuta… è essere, non ottenibile da nulla di materiale, non può trovare soddisfazione in quello che discosta la persona dalla sua vera natura e come si è già detto, non costa nulla anzi, aumenta il valore dei rapporti. Grazie…

    • Grazie mille Claudio. Questa tema mi entusiasma perche’ le buone maniere mostrano rispetto e dignita che rendono la vita quotidiano cosi’ piacevole e come hai detto tu si arricchiscono i nostri rapporti.

    • Many thanks (wish I could address you by name)) for your time and appreciation. No matter how disheartening the world around us may be, I still believe that leading by example makes a difference – even if it is on a small scale. After all there is the ripple effect. Thank you once again.

    • Thank you, Terry, for your time, reflections and very valid comment. It is indeed sad that living in our own individual bubbles is exacerbating the disconnection between us. Yet no matter how disheartening the times, those of us who still believe in the beauty of courtesy and reaching out to humanity need to keep the flames of kindness, respect, and love burning brightly.

  2. Buongiorno Noemi e buona domenica, grazie per aver condiviso questo tuo contributo!
    L’educazione non si compra, si possiede o tutt’al più si impara in ordine al rispetto nei confronti delle altre persone.
    Sarebbe bello che tutti ci ispirassimo ad un codice morale che esalta l’educazione.
    A presto
    Gabriella Menaguale

    • Buona domenica a te Gabriella e ai tuoi cari. Hai perfetta ragione quandi dici ‘ L’educazione non si compra, si possiede o tutt’al più si impara in ordine al rispetto nei confronti delle altre persone.’ Tutti noi, genitori or no, abbiamo la responsabilita’ d’insegnare le buone maniere ai bambini e ai giovanni perche’ esprimono la gentilezza e il rispetto. In oltre come si dice in inglese: ‘We also have to walk the talk among ourselves.’ Grazie di nuovo per i tuoi riflessioni..

  3. Being nice doesn’t cost anything, but it can change things a lot. Acting with respect, giving a little kindness, speaking with feeling and looking with empathy are gestures that define the magic of human connections, of those unique bonds that allow us to grow as people.
    If we really want to create a better world, we should start making it more sensitive. Because good people are above all able to identify the needs of others and, moreover, they know well what it means to act with respect, with that kindness that asks for nothing in return.

    • Without a doubt, courtesy makes a big difference because it makes life much more pleasant whatever the mood or situation and as you rightly say Paolo, it denotes sensitivity and empathy. Good manners essentially express kindness and respect. Thank you for your time and reflections. Buona domenica.

  4. Thanks Noemi. I sympathise with your lament over the decay of Virtue Ethics in modern life. Social media does accelerate and amplify the distress of shared values in favour of polarisation and extremes that act like neon lights signalling new distractions to the smart phone tapping masses.

    You invited me to comment, but at first I hesitated: the topic carries the weight of the human condition; and to borrow from Harold Bloom, to reply is like a descent into the Shakespearean abyss.

    But, let me reply from a biblical story (Eden) which to me is the most fertile for ideas and understanding about the human condition.

    To me, the eviction of Adam and Eve from Eden is a metaphor for the estrangement of man and nature.

    When Eve succumbed to the seductiveness of language humanity discovered personal desire, and nature would endlessly satisfy those desires.

    To that moment, there was harmony between man and nature; but, with the successful germination of personal desire came the realisation that nature could be plundered for relief. The eviction of Adam and Eve from Eden formalised the estrangement of man and nature. But more, God told Eve that she would suffer in child birth; and he told Adam that he would always need to break his back plowing the land. That is, this moment defined the two fundamental characteristics of the human condition: suffering, and contingency.

    Maybe, Picasso had this same intuition in ‘The Saltimbanques’. What strikes me about this work is the completely barren background where nature has been erased. In the foreground, the figures wear harlequin clothes symbolising their outcast status (referring back to Eden); their faces show the alienation, and spiritual emptiness of modern life.

    The Jungian psychoanalyst, James Hollis In the Book ‘Creating A Life’ offers an analysis of the problems of modern life. In chapter 6, he recalls Pascal in his assessment that our addiction to techno-materialism is a diversion from the distress of our existential angst. Once ancient wisdom, philosophy, myths and fictional narrative were part of lived experience, and transcendence was part of felt experience intuited throughout the natural world. These psychological foundations have been swept aside; however there is no sustaining replacement to fill the void.

    All of this is a wound that we all bear; and on occasions in others, and sometimes ourselves, we experience the rawness of that wound. Living the Virtues strengthens our character and aligns our spirit with the ‘Good’. By strengthening our character the Virtues help sooth the distress of the wound we bear.

    We are all struggling against the current in the stream of life. But, try this; from time to time look back and if you see someone struggling take them by the hand and look forward – all is forgiven!

    • I have no words to thank you, Mark, for your time and extensive comments.

      Your citing Harold Blooom could not have been more apt for he stood his ground in the tidal wave of totally contrary literary theory, which no matter how intriguing, ultimately shun the sacredness of the text. Ironically, the utter profundity of Shakespeare beats all schools of thought for he is much more than their amalgam in his probing of man’s heart and mind,

      Your plunging into the Fall of Man shows the metaphorical power of Genesis, which incomparably roots the angst that hounds mankind as it pursues its rejection of the soothing balm of virtues.

      Most of all, I love the compassion of your last line. Thank you once again.

  5. Dear Noemi,

    Excellent and very interesting article as usual … about a subject which seems almost updated nowadays : politeness .
    In a world where we are taught to compete , where hate-speech reigns sovereign on social media and where we are addicted to our cellphones, there is very little space for the respect and consideration the other deserves.
    As you say, it’s sad, very sad indeed, also because, at the end, what is politeness if not
    kindness ?

    • Thank you, Manuela, for your time and appreciation but most of all for your heartfelt insight. As long as there are like-minded people, the flame of courtesy will continue to shine brightly and it is up to all of us to keep it going.

    • Thank you, John, for your time and appreciation. Though I fully agree that they have a massive impact, I do not believe that manners are a ‘small’ thing because they are the ultimate expression of kindness and respect.

  6. Noemi, your Francis Bacon quote is outstanding in this insightful piece of work you offer us. I picture your family friend who is the mason and I really like that he stood out from your years growing up. Also that you honoured him today in such a kind manner. All-in-all because being polite is dirt cheap (as you mentioned!) and as I am frugal I am glad it is a commodity that I will continue to value and offer with love and intent.

    • Thank you for your time and appreciation (Please tell me who you are because it feels so much better knowing who I’m addressing). Yes, the Francis Bacon quote pretty much sums up the whole ethos of politeness. Wonderful to hear that you wrap up politeness with love and intent.

  7. As far as Dante is concerned if memory serves me correctly which these days it does not always. I recall being exposed to him while I was in college. To give you aq time reference my son is now 33 years old and my college days were way before that. People are less polite these days (make no excuses nor defenses for this) possibly as a result of upbringing, life experiences, etc. Saying please, thank you and being considerate should be expected of most of us (it will never be all of us) there is no one cause for this. The internet can be a factor but I don’t want to use it as a scapegoat. I enjoyed reading your article as I generally do. All my best. Take care and be well.

    • Many thanks, Joel for your time and appreciation. My memory too is not as good as it used to be!

      I am with you that there are several factors contributing to a lack of politeness and that the internet should not be used as a scapegoat. Also that there will always be rude people as a result of many unfortunate situations. What I find disturbing is that there seems to be something in the air that is affecting people who have been brought up as well-mannered, but who are letting go of their good manners.

      • Not that this is an excuse but pressure or stress can cause people to change. As you go through life there can be experiences that leave you feeling angry, resentful and bitter. One of the things that sometimes works is to extra polite to these people which can change their attitude or maybe not. Let us be role models as much as we can and go from there. I know I have my “moments” so I am no position to judge anybody else. Take care, Noemi.

  8. Interesting article, Naomi. Thank you for a thought-provoking piece. I am currently reading about Mr. Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. He stands out as someone who communicated with great civility, depth of feeling, and listened with quiet presence.

    I guess I haven’t gotten worked up in my life about politeness of others because in my experience a glib “sorry” oozing with anger feels worse than a genuine remorseful apology and a behavior change. If so called “polite”words are spoken from a place of sarcasm, pretense covering up a sinister agenda, I’d rather know what the deeper agenda of another person is. All words come with emotional energy wrapped around them-emotional intent, if you will. Kind words spoken from a place of deep love, care, compassion consistently feel better than words spoken from resentment, anger, hurt, emotional pain.

    I sense that there are many people who are hurting on flame and no one has given them safe tools to process their hurts, betrayals, grief, rage, traumas. Many of them behave badly because they’re in survival mode of fight, flight, freeze and therefore look like porcupines with their quills standing on end or like three year olds screaming/wailing in big adult bodies. Their brains and nervous systems have struggled to create pathways to the pre-frontal cortex. Much healing needs to take place for people-heart, mind, body, soul. Breaking the patterns of abuse and traumas will be a big part of healing all the impoliteness and unregulated beings unable to rein in their volcanic pots of pain.

    Thank you so much for bringing this topic to our attention.

    • Thank you, Laura, for your time and appreciation and most of all for your lengthy comments which open up so much space for more discussion. I am with you that seeing what you get is so much better than a hypocritical facade and/or hidden agenda since it makes it easier to deal with. At the same time, I still feel that the way a person behaves when emotionally charged offers the best insight into one’s character and background.

      While I am all out for compassionate reaching out because people cannot give from what they do not have, I still would not use such a circumstance to condone rudeness. Perhaps it’s idealistic, but I feel that politeness also helps people to heal.

      I am also a firm believer that politeness is a powerful weapon to use when dealing with rude people. Have you ever experienced this? It’s a daily staple where I work.

      • What I know for certain is that I am 100 percent responsible for how I respond (or react) to others. When people are frighteningly unregulated, I sometimes speak to them from a distance in measured ways-as though they were a child in a grown-up body. I’ve written about the “interventions” I’ve done on behalf of children being abused by an adult. Recently, a completely unregulated/raging woman at a FireHouse Sub Restaurant was verbally abusing the entire staff. The manager was doing everything within her ability to resolve the situation-offered a full refund, dried off the woman’s pants, etc. I simply walked over, stood next to the raging woman in grounded, unafraid, present silence…Close enough that she finally stopped shouting and looked over. I looked her in the eyes and said, “Can I help you?” This kind of shocked her into a different reality. She stopped shouting and walked over to the register to get her full refund. She had no ability to use polite words. I could hold non-judgmental space and connect with some part of her that knew she was behaving badly- And each situation is different. Cultivating my witness consciousness, paying attention from the seat of my soul, I can choose how I respond.

        “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”-Viktor Frankl, Holocaust Survivor, author of A Man’s Search for Meaning.

        I choose not to use any weapons, but rather many tools of compassion, silent presence, (and knowing when to walk far, far away and call the police) from years of having been “trained” by tortured soul adults.

        • Laura, I love the emphasis you give to being totally and utterly responsible for whatever we do or say – as against today’s trend with passing the buck. I also admire the strategy you used in dealing with the difficult customer. I will be pondering much more on your notion of space. Although I used the term ‘weapons’ metaphorically, you alerted me to how it can also be interpreted at face value. I thank you for this eye-opener too.

          Incidentally, Frankl’s A Man’s Search for Meaning is one of my absolute A-listers.

  9. Thank you for this beautiful piece, Noemi! I often discuss this very issue with others, as well as in the written word! How expensive is being polite? Yet, how priceless it is when offered to another? We may not even know the impact it has on others.💖

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