15 July 2010

KEY Words: Please, thank you, and other courtesies

"He pronounced the words: 'Open Sesame!' and the door immediately opened..." and before him was a great quantity of gold and valuable things. We all remember the story of Ali Baba and his visit to the cave of the thieves. In this story from our early youth, we learn that some words are important for opening doors.

At the library, children must use a password to get on the computers. Usually this is their library card number, or a substitute we supply at the reference desk. If they need this substitute (and even librarians don't have their cards with them at all times!) they must approach the desk and request one. The number is a password that opens the computer and these are theirs for the asking.

Oh, and they must say please.

Children, by and large, have remarkable manners, often much better than those of their parents. On the occasions that they forget, we remind them by asking, "What's the magic word?" Children always know without being told what the magic word is, and deliver it with a smile. We return the favor by giving them a heart-felt thank you when they are kind. Between request and this mannerly correction, their faces light up, without exception. We asked them, for a moment, to slow down and observe the courtesies and they, by their good natures, are glad to oblige. Children who did not feel the need of this nicety before do so now. Sure, a few see it as a game:  the "She won't give me the pass until I say it" game. But of those, the delivery of the key word improves the quality of the exchange. No one ever refuses, and no one ever gives me a hard time. I have a number of regular patrons, and they seldom forget now. A few even chat with me over little stuff from their day, because their courtesy has opened a door. I often compliment them on their lovely manners. It hasn't made them perfect angels in the library, but it has made a difference.

If only all the world functioned in the way this child-world does: "May I fish in your offshore fishing grounds, please?" "Why sure, help yourself." "How kind of you!" "Would you mind it if we go over here and make our own country based on our own ideas and beliefs and live peacefully forever?" "That would be swell, and that would give us an interesting new place to visit, and be friends."

Okay. Maybe not.

Still, you have to wonder, if manners were deeply ingrained from birth, if people were taught from very young to be sincere in their interactions and truly grateful for kindnesses, whether the world would be calmer. I am not talking about parroting words - we see this behavior everywhere: "Have a nice day." "Thanks. You too."
It is pleasant enough, but more of a Pavlovian response than an actual sentiment.

A few words have a special mission. They are meant to make us more human. And because the weight of our humanity rests with them, they should never be taken for granted. They should be delivered sincerely and directly, maybe with brief but direct eye-contact. They should be expected, as an understood recognition between valuable beings.

"Thank you for coming."
"Please don't be a stranger."
"You are welcome anytime."
"I'm grateful."
"I appreciated your kindness."

From me to you. Sincerely.

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