Why Good Manners Matter

The little things have so much more power than we realize.
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The little things have so much more power than we realize.
Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller

Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller

“Forget love. Try good manners.”

That quote has stuck with me since I first read Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood fifteen years ago. I have no shortage of love in my life, but something about the idea of being a proactive participant in one’s emotional well-being appeals to me.

It’s a concept that finds fertile ground in the pep talk that my dad has given me at least 127 times—the one where he reminds me that “70 percent of life is just showing up.” There’s a comfort in that. Sometimes we don’t know what to say, or what to do, or how to act. Sometimes we’re nervous or under-qualified or annoyed. But we can always show up. We can always have good manners. It’s always the right thing to do the right thing.

They say that kindness is contagious, and now there’s even research to back it up. Researchers from UCLA and Cambridge have found that people are more likely to act altruistically after watching someone else perform a virtuous deed. When we go out of our way to be kind to others, other people are more likely to be kind in their own lives as well. When we exercise good manners, even when it would be easier to say nothing and keep moving, other people are more likely to take the time for good manners, too. The attempt can be small or large, sort of easy or really hard, but it can be made by you. It can be you who does the first right thing.

The most tangible example of a first right thing I’ve ever seen was actually graffiti. Graffiti on the inside of a bathroom stall door, to be exact.

I was in the middle of running in the Golden Gate Relay, a fundraising race in which teams of twelve people run 190 miles over the course of about thirty hours. We had a couple hours to rest at the Marin French Cheese Company, which is an admittedly strange fueling choice for a few hundred runners. The cheese shop is a tiny, quaint building set on a huge chunk of gorgeous Northern California hillside, complete with a small lake, picnic tables aplenty, and—likely the reason it was designated as a relay rest stop—tons of parking. I was tired and starting to shiver in my sweat-drenched running clothes as night began to fall.

Sleep, eat, and use flushable toilets. These were the priorities for our precious few hours at a rest stop. Sleep was a lost cause for me—I was already feeling nervous about my next leg of the relay, six uphill miles to start at 1 a.m. and end with crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. Eating wasn’t looking too promising, either, as my body had put digestion on hold in favor of fueling my muscles and generally trying to figure out why the hell I was making it do all this running. So I walked right past the sandwich counter to wait in the long line for the ladies’ room.

Once I finally made my way into the bathroom stall of this tiny cheese shop, I was shocked to be facing a door covered in graffiti. Nearly every square inch was covered with etchings of various sizes and colors, clearly the work of dozens of people likely spanning many years.

“You are so much more beautiful than you think,” one read.

Ummm, OK. Thanks?

Then the next: “You possess the ability to do anything you dream of.”

Well, shucks, Bathroom Door, you’re making me blush.

As I scanned them all—I had earned my time in this stall, after all—there wasn’t an outlier to be found. Not one space-waster of “Amy was here,” or “For a good time call Jenny,” or even a “Becky loves Aaron.” Years of graffiti etched by dozens of women in various inks and scratches with intentions that I can’t even begin to guess, but every last word of it was unmistakably meant to build people up.

Here’s what stuck with me. Someone wrote that first nice thing. Someone decided that a freshly installed bathroom door made a great blank canvas for her inspirational message, and in doing so, she invited others to join her. Then there were three, and then seven, and then fifteen, and then thirty-seven notes of encouragement. And then there I was, in the most encouraging bathroom of all time. Vandalizing a bathroom stall door may not seem like good manners, but as a tired runner feeling nervous about my abilities and worried about letting my team down, that graffiti was the nicest thing anyone could have said to me.

The unexpected sweetness of it all brought a smile to my face as I walked back to our van to rest my legs. I didn’t say anything about it to my teammates, most of whom were trying to get some sleep, but I saw them differently because of it. In receiving my own encouragement, I felt encouragement for them. We are so much more beautiful than we think. We do possess the ability to do anything we dream of.

It dawned on me that halfway through this crazy race, crammed together in a camper van with no place to hide all of the unflattering moments that come along with running fifteen miles on no sleep, I hadn’t heard a single self-deprecating comment from any of my teammates. We spanned from a size 0 to a size 12, from an A cup to a DD cup, from a 7-minute mile to a 12-minute mile, from married with kids to single and unattached. And apparently, I realized in awe, we were all OK with that. Or at the very least, no one wanted to be the first to say a disparaging comment. Because those, too, are contagious.

If you’ve ever spent a concentrated amount of time with women in their mid-twenties to early thirties, you’ll understand how rare it is to go hours without hearing an unkind word about ourselves. Our generation can be an insecure bunch. Blame the media or Photoshop or whatever, but at the end of the day, most women in my peer group wish they were a size smaller and ten pounds lighter with clearer skin, whiter teeth, and perkier boobs. Yet here I was, with eleven such women over the course of an entire weekend, and not one such word was uttered.

To me, what’s so remarkable about this is that I was sure those thoughts existed amongst us, yet we collectively, almost unknowingly, chose to give them the silent treatment. Someone resisted saying something out loud, and then someone else did, and so it continued. It was a kindness that we were showing to ourselves, to our bodies, and to each other. And it was apparently contagious. In performing good manners personally—the classic “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” variety—we invited each other to join in. The civility we showed ourselves became a kindness to one another. We wrote the encouragement on the walls of our own hearts, and then there were three, and then seven, and then fifteen, and then thirty-seven encouraging thoughts scribbled together.

I knew that running in the relay race would be hard and that it would probably also be a lot of fun. But I had no idea that a bathroom door in a cheese shop would show me the power of saying the first nice thing. And I had no idea that my eleven teammates would show me the power of showing ourselves the basic kindness we’d want to show others. I had no idea this contagious kindness could essentially shift the way women relate to ourselves and to each other, even if only for a weekend.

Through these surprising little lessons, I learned in a concrete way that the first one can be me. It can be me who shows up, who shows kindness, or who tries good manners even when the loving feeling just isn’t there. It can be me who does the first right thing, who etches the first word of encouragement, or who invites others to join.

It can be you, too: We all possess the ability. Just like the bathroom door said.