The Old Man held the heavy receiver of the black, rotary telephone as he spoke. He’d called his doctor’s office to make an appointment.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said. “Yes, ma’am three o’clock Tuesday will be fine.”
I was seven or eight at the time and had been instructed since birth to say, “Yes, sir,” and, “No, ma’am” to my elders so the words were familiar but, the thing was, I thought the Old Man was surely as old as anyone could be and still operate a telephone or hold a conversation. I thought there was no way the person on the other end could be older than him. Besides, people were supposed to say, “Yes, sir” to the Old Man. He wasn’t to be expected to say it to them, and hearing him do it made me mildly uneasy because I thought it was beneath him.
“Why did you say, ‘Yes, ma’am’ on the phone?” I asked after he hung up. “Was she older than you?”
“No, it’s just a matter of courtesy,” he said, “and don’t listen in on other folks when they’re talking.”
Later he explained that, in person or on the phone, treating people the way you’d want to be treated pays immediate benefits. Further, he said, being willing to offer someone else a sign of respect was more likely to lead them to respect you than anything. Most of the people we meet or deal with work hard at their jobs and have troubles of their own that we’ll never know about. A little respect can go a long way.
“You never know what kind of day someone else is having,” he said, “but chances are it’s not a polite one. Certainly not as polite as you can be just out of common, good sense and at no cost to you. Being spoken to in a polite way by someone who doesn’t have to be polite may be the highlight of their day. For one thing it’ll make them more likely to help you when they don’t strictly have to, so that’s a benefit, but really it’s more of a reflection of who you are and, right now anyway, of how you were raised. When you’re grown you can decide for yourself how to talk to people, but by then you’ll be in the habit of being polite and saying things like, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and I think you’ll notice the difference.”
I have, too, especially now that it’s not as commonly expected as it once was. Other than blowing my horn at people for not going when the light turns green, I’ve done my best to follow the example of being as polite as possible at all times, and I see folks around me suffer unnecessarily by not doing the same, which is a shame. Not everyone was lucky enough to have an Old Man to guide them.
Kevin Tate is V.P. of Media Productions for Mossy Oak in West Point.