One thing that seems to be in short supply in America these days is respect. I mean respect for each other’s basic humanity. I guess it is largely because social media seems so anonymous, and can in fact be so, that I see so many cases of someone blaming entire groups of people (MAGA wearers, liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, Rastafarians, Pastafarians, Vegans, meat eaters, women, men, and whoever created mosquitoes, for examples.) I’ll tell you this right now, folks, if you do that, you’ve just lost your argument. Sure, it feels good, but it just shows your own weakness. Ironic, that. Anyway, interpersonal respect is what keeps a society functioning. Respect of authority isn’t it. Respect of social position isn’t it. Respect of wealth or job title isn’t it. It is simply respect for the basic humanity of another person. That is what we need to cultivate, and stat.
We might look to France for some guidance on this, because the French are very much committed to respecting each other’s basic humanity. My first morning ever in France, in 1976, I went to a change booth in a train station (no ATMs in those days) and received a stern lecture from the change lady on how to be polite in society. Fortunately for me, I took her lesson to heart. Not only in France, but after I returned home. I generally say hello, goodbye, please, and thank-you. For years I took that as basic courtesy, and was at first amazed at how much easier simply being polite made things. But, to the French, it is courtesy, yes, but also much more.
In France, the word for hello is “bonjour.” Literally that means “good day,” but it has been used as “hello” for so long that people had to adopt “bonne journée,” which originally meant “good trip you can take out and back in one day.” FYI. Anyhow, you first say “Good Day” and then you add, “Madame” or Monsieur.” Madame literally means “My Lady.” Monsieur literally means “My Lord.” So, no matter who you address in France, you are saying, “Hello, My Lady,” or “Hello, My Lord.” Sounds a bit over the top, but it works. If the President of France wants to speak to a beggar on the corner, the President must first say, “Hello, My Lord” or “Hello, My Lady.” Only then is it proper to begin a conversation. This is why sometimes Americans believe the French to be impolite: because in America we don’t go for such ceremony, and anyway, shouldn’t the shopkeeper say hello first? (Sometimes they do. I would, but it isn’t required.) No matter who you are addressing, it is assumed that you are invading their personal space, and you owe them the simple acknowledgement of that fact, which is to say, a polite greeting. Is the beggar on the corner a Lord or Lady? Probably not, but by using those terms, you grant them the basic dignity due to any human being.
When you combine this basic respect with the French educational goal of being able to discuss literally anything without getting personal, you end up with a polite society where it is considered normal to argue. (No, shopkeepers won’t argue with you. Once you’ve exchanged “bonjours” they’ll be so eager to help that you’ll almost feel guilty.) Imagine a society where arguments were not the Monty Python type (No they aren’t!) but rather reasoned and defensible. We could have that, if we respected each other. We certainly don’t need to go to the lengths of calling each other My Lord or My Lady. In fact, a bunch of patriots once fought a war for the right to eliminate Lords and Ladies. But we can still be respectful. A few suggestions:
- Don’t call people names. Not even if you hate them. Remember, as we writers occasionally point out, that everyone is the hero of their own story. You may not agree with their reasoning, but you can respect their right to an opinion without getting snarky.
- Say hello to everyone you expect to interact with, and to anyone on the street with whom you happen to lock eyes. And when you want something from someone, say “please,” and after you get it, say “thank-you.” and Maybe throw in a Sir or Ma’am to really seal the deal. (Yes, watered down versions of those old titles, but still appreciated.)
- Don’t blame groups, any groups, for society’s problems. We are all members of society, so we all contribute, each in our own way, to the problems. Boomers didn’t wreck the world (trust me,) nor are they any better than any other generation. We all have our quirks. Millenials aren’t lazy. Generation X has never slacked. And Generation Z, while pretty young yet, will make a great contribution (that history will forget) to the welfare of humankind. (Such generations always do. The last one invented rock and roll. They called them “silent,” ironically.)
- Don’t get over invested in a particular world view. For one thing, in philosophical terms, it’s as likely as not that you have some significant information wrong.
- Stay cool, stay respectful.
Ladies and Lords, we can do this. We can make America better simply be being mutually respectful. And, very importantly, by being respectful even of those who don’t respect us. In that case, remember, that’s their problem, not yours. Okay?
Great. Now go forth and be respectfully kind to each other! Thank you.