The Way it Was: The courteous ways of yesterdays

by John Straka Published:

A recent newspaper article was about a woman who changed her baby's diaper on the table in a restaurant. I know changing a diaper is a natural and normal thing to do, but in a restaurant, where people are eating? The restaurant management did a lot of cleaning and disinfecting after she left. It seems to me the mother should have done what she had to do in a different way as an act of courtesy to other customers in the restaurant.

That brings me to the subject of courtesy and to wondering if the standards of courtesy and being polite have changed over my lifetime. Maybe I just don't get around as much as before. Or is it that people just don't care about others as much as they once did? Maybe other things have changed and what was once an act of courtesy is now obsolete and out of place in modern society.

I remember when it was the polite thing to do for a man to open a door for a lady. Then I heard that a women may be offended when a man opens a door for her. She may take it as meaning he thinks she is not capable of opening the door herself. I'd feel sorry for the man who is just trying to be nice and his efforts are not appreciated.

Many places now have doors that open automatically and that little courtesy doesn't apply. It may also be that doors are easier to open or that women today are less likely to be carrying anything, like maybe a baby, a basket of laundry or a bag of groceries.

A similar courtesy is when a man allows and/or invites a lady to "go first." A recent newspaper article had to do with a marine tradition that in cases where the order is given to abandon ship, it should always be "women and children first."

The article discussed that tradition and compared it to actual statistics of survival rates.

One situation where a woman may insist that the man go first is when they are both climbing a ladder and she is wearing a skirt or dress.

Boy Scouts used to be taught to help old ladies cross busy streets. That must have been in days before traffic lights when some of the traffic was horse drawn. There is a scene in a popular television series where a man tries to help an elderly lady cross a street and she hits him with her purse because she thinks he is trying to "get fresh" with her. Many people today do not want to be touched by strangers under any circumstances.

In the days before automobiles, most men went back and forth to work on streetcars. It was the polite and courteous thing to do, for a man to offer his seat to a lady when the streetcar was filled to capacity. That made sense if the lady was holding a child or if she was elderly. Men who were on their way home after a hard day's work felt they were entitled to sit and refused to give up their seats.

A courteous act that I remember being done many times was when a man would tip his hat as a sign of respect. It could be for a woman, an elderly person, someone in uniform or wearing a religious habit or just as a greeting or thank you. I've noticed that in England, women curtsy to the queen as an act of courtesy.

It's just the courteous thing to do when people "dress up." Men wore suits, ties and hats to go downtown for any purpose.

Women always wore dresses and hats to church. Everyone would dress up for just about any occasion. All that has changed. I haven't worn a tie in years. My suit hangs in the closet, unused.

I see people come to church wearing less than my mother would have worn to go swimming. The last time I was on an airplane, all the passengers were dressed just as if they were at home in the evening, getting ready for bed. In fact, as we crossed the ocean, all the passengers did get some sleep.

Before all the chain stores and supermarkets, retail sales were conducted in family owned stores. A business could not survive without customers and owners went out of their way to be courteous and to treat customers like family. If you bought a dozen pieces of bakery, you often got an extra doughnut. The butcher would throw in a soup bone without charge. The grocer would give samples of fresh peaches or plums. Little kids that behaved in the store would be treated to a lollipop.

Very few businesses today give calendars to their customers. When I was a boy, many stores and other businesses gave calendars away. Those who had mostly male customers would give calendars with pictures of pretty girls in skimpy costumes.

Another act of courtesy was when a smoker would ask permission from those around him before he would light up. There was even a joke about that. The young man asked his new girlfriend, "Mind if I smoke"? She answered, "Heck, no, burst into flames if you like." New laws that prohibit smoking have changed all that.

When there were many people who did not speak English, it was considered rude to speak a foreign language in the presence of someone who did not.

A little before my time, before telephones and radio, people used calling cards. Not all people, just those in the upper class of society. A card with the caller's name on it, would be presented to a servant at the door. The servant would deliver the card to the man or woman of the house and they would have the servant deliver an answer. Either the person would be "at home" or "not at home." Today we can choose whether or not to answer the phone.

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