Notes from the Porch

Civility Lives

Every kind word helps

By Bill Thompson

I don’t believe civility is dead although some folks already mourn its passing. Reports in the media notwithstanding, I like to think that there are still pockets of social interaction in which people converse without demeaning those with whom they interact. There is an old social dictum that my mother strongly endorsed, which said never discuss politics or religion in polite company. Following that instruction greatly limits conversation in many cases.

In the course of the last few months I have seen and heard instances of folks struggling to be civil under very trying circumstances. I was in a local store when a lady came into the shoe department, probably to find a pair of shoes to her liking. I say “probably” because her subsequent conduct did not necessarily confirm that assumption. After a cursory review of some shoes jutting out from a wall display, she chose a pair of black and white sneakers. (We used to call all such footwear “tennis shoes”; now they are running shoes, walking shoes, etc.). Raising one of the shoes high above her head, she shouted to the clerk who stood nearby, “Do you have these in my size?”

“What size would that be, ma’am?” asked the clerk politely.

“It depends on the shoe. What does this look like?” she said as she stuck one flip-flop-clad foot in front of him.

The young man replied with courtesy, “Why don’t we measure and see,” as he reached for an instrument to measure the woman’s foot.

“You can’t put that thing on my foot! No telling where it’s been!” she exclaimed.

I wondered what places other than people’s feet she thought the instrument had touched.

The young clerk didn’t seem to be put off by the woman’s manner and simply said, “I would guess that you wear about a size 7 in that kind of shoe.”

“Well, go find a 7,” instructed the woman.

In just a minute the young man returned and said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, we don’t have a size 7 in that particular shoe.”

“I knew you wouldn’t,” snapped the woman as she threw the shoe on the floor and stormed out of the shoe department.

I thought maybe the lady was just having a bad day. Maybe she thought doing a little shopping might brighten things up a bit. Evidently it didn’t, but the young clerk showed remarkable restraint in the face of her rudeness. His response was a sure sign that civility is still alive even when pushed to the limit.

A few days later I was in the parking lot of a mall when I noticed a lady having some difficulty backing out of a parking space. She was trying not to hit the cars on either side of her. After several attempts — backing up, turning her wheels, driving forward, backing up again — she got out of her car and stood back and looked at her situation. As I started to walk over and offer my assistance (whatever my limited ability might be in that particular situation), a young lady came out of the store that was right in front of the parking space and started talking to the frustrated woman.

I heard the girl say, “Miss Wilma, just hold on a minute and I’ll help you.”

“No, I can drive my own car,” said the lady.

“Oh, no, ma’am. You do fine. You just get right back in there and I’ll move my car,” said the girl. With that, the girl got in the car that was parked beside the lady’s and moved to another area of the lot. When she had parked her car, she returned to watch Miss Wilma back out and drive away.

As the girl was standing there watching the lady drive away, I approached her and said, “That was very nice of you.”

“Thank you,” she said, “She’s a nice lady who comes in here all the time.”

“Why didn’t you just back her car out for her?”

“Well, she mighta thought she was too old to drive her own car. Letting her drive her car didn’t shame her.”

Now, I don’t know if those two instances were examples of civility or kindness. Maybe the shoe salesman didn’t want to shame the rude customer who might have been just having a bad day. I believe that, when we get right down to it, civility is just being kind to one another. b

Bill Thompson is a regular Salt contributor. His newest novel, Chasing Jubal, a coming of age story in the 1950s Blue Ridge, is available where books are sold.

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