Practicing Courtesy: 30 Things Nice People Do

Courtesy and Civility

By Angela Noel

July 23, 2018

I’ve written several posts about encounters with people while traveling in the last year. One about trouble in the security line. Another about assumptions I made about a priest. I’ve also talked about things I’ve learned from drivers of taxis or Ubers. All of these posts highlighted, in one way or another, the importance of basic civility, courtesy, and kindness. This post pulls some of those ideas together and adds a few more.

In a world where we seem not far away from implosion (depending on who you happen to be listening to and when), these perfect gifts go a long way. They’re so simple. It’s easy to miss them, or dismiss them. But we shouldn’t. “Well, that’s just common courtesy,” you might think. And I’d agree with you. But “just common courtesy” isn’t a given. It’s a practice.

Courtesy and civility matter to preserve our resources
Forest rangers receive many “conscience” letters from visitors who return their ill-gotten souvenirs.

When visiting the Petrified Forest National Park, visitors are warned,”The removal of petrified wood or other features of the park is prohibited by law.”  Why do they do this? Simple. If everyone who visited removed a piece of wood, no matter how small, there wouldn’t be any left for others to enjoy. Every little bit counts. Maybe not one piece, or two, or even a thousand. But eventually everyone who thinks, “just this one piece, just this one time,” is responsible for the depletion of a natural resource. Our little part, the simple choice we make, contributes either to preserving a good thing for others to enjoy or to destroying it.

That’s how I think of these courtesies. Practicing them preserves the good things. They are likely to go unnoticed–no one thanks the visitor who manages NOT to take a petrified spar of wood from the forest. But that doesn’t mean we’re not all grateful. Choosing to do the right thing is as much a choice as choosing to do the wrong thing. I am not consciously grateful for the myriad of little things people do to play by the rules every day or to simply allow me to exist unmolested. But, every now and again, I am. So, here’s the list of courtesies I try and practice and appreciate in others, even if I don’t always say it.

  1. Looking someone in the eye when saying hello
  2. Smiling all the way to the eyes
  3. Holding the elevator door when it looks as if someone might need a ride
  4. Opening any door for someone
  5. Allowing them to open a door for you
  6. Remembering someone’s name
  7. Telling someone at an appropriate moment that they have spinach in their teeth
  8. Not using the accessible restroom unless you need to
  9. Saying please and thank you
  10. Accepting an apology when someone accidentally bonks you on the head or leg with their suitcase
  11. Keeping your shoes on when flying

    Courtesy and civility means keeping your shoes on
    My friend Kendall snapped this photo on a recent flight. This passenger perfectly illustrates what NOT to do.
  12. Not reclining your airline seat
  13. Throwing away garbage in appropriate receptacles (and never in a storm drain)
  14. Picking up and disposing of the occasional litter on the street (We all accidentally drop something now and again. I’m sure I have. So I consider this penance for past mistakes.)
  15. Waving or smiling at someone you know or don’t know in your neighborhood
  16. Offering a seat in the tram, train, or bus to a tired man, woman or child
  17. Noticing if someone is distressed and offering help
  18. Using your turn signal
  19. Forgiving someone if they forget to use their turn signal and accidentally cut you off (It’s not on purpose, I swear. If it was me, I’m just focused on not getting lost. But I realize I seem like a jerk in that moment. I’m sorry.)
  20. Flushing the toilet when you’re done

    Courtesy in the restroom
    I took a picture of this sign in the restroom of a store in Juneau, Alaska. Good advice, I think.
  21. Mopping splashed water up after washing your hands
  22. Not talking on the phone in a public restroom
  23. Muting yourself if you need to use the restroom at home and happen to be talking on the phone
  24. If you don’t want to do something, say no
  25. If you say you’ll do something, do it
  26. Asking how someone’s doing and actually wanting to know the answer
  27. Assuming positive intent as a general rule (But making exceptions when a pattern of deceit or bad behavior emerges.)
  28. Trying not to cut in line–even though lines makes everyone feel a little crazy (Being pushy just makes everyone else more nervous.)
  29. Not staring at other people’s pimples
  30. Not stopping in a walkway or roadway unless it’s a) a real emergency b) you want to ask someone to marry you, or c) you are giving the person behind you a million dollarsCourtesy can be as simple as a smile

In summary, the Hippocratic Oath, taken by doctors, includes this statement, “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing.” A doctor promises never to intentionally injure and to always act with thoughtfulness. We can all do this. In my case, I can’t honestly say I’ll never harm someone. I can say I won’t do it on purpose. Similarly, I can promise to act according to my “ability and judgment” to do the right thing. Some time in the future I may be called upon to do something REALLY important. But most of the time, it’ll just be enough to help a sweet little girl with a timid voice get a cookie when the clerk doesn’t hear her.

Actions like these, mere pebbles that amount to something greater, help leave a better world for those who come next.

Your turn: What makes your nice list? 


Author: Angela Noel

On a quest to become a better human, I write about parenting, leadership, and personal development. I tell my stories so you can find your own.

19 thoughts on “Practicing Courtesy: 30 Things Nice People Do”

  1. Oh I try, I always try to do the right thing. As you know, in my piece I wrote for you on my grandad; to always try and do the right thing, was the sagest bit of advice he gave me. I have no doubt I make mistake, especially if I’m not in the best of moods. But if everyone tries their best, like you say, it’s all the small actions that build up. It makes the world a more pleasant place to live. I’m aways conscious to help tired looking mums with young kids, especially. We’ve all been there! Any little bit of help is usually always appreciated. I remember a time when I fell in love with my husband all over again and knew he was the right man for me. On a plane journey once, he looked after a disabled boy, so the mother (who was by herself) only needed to worry about looking after her young baby. The disabled boy adored my husband and they got on great. It was very low key, just looking at magazines together and Andrew let him hug him when we took off and landed, but the mother was so grateful. She couldn’t stop thanking my husband. If we all look out for each other, in small ways, we all have a slightly easier life. And goodness knows life can be tough sometimes.

    1. That is such an amazing and beautiful story! No wonder you fell in love with him all over again.
      I love how you put that, “If we look out for each other, in small ways, we all have a slightly easier life.” It’s less about what we’re obligated to do and what we choose to do that makes the biggest difference.
      I do all kinds of not-nice things out of thoughtlessness, never malice. But that too is something I want to be better about. I don’t think we can hover around so worried about whether we hurt someone or not, but we sure can try to live more consciously with kindness.
      Thank you so much for sharing your awesome story and insight!

  2. I always hold the door open for others. Many years ago everybody said thank you and walked through. Several years ago many people weren’t sure what to make of that and seemed to walk through grudgingly and wondering what I wanted in return. More recently I am finding most people saying thank you again. I guess everything comes and goes in cycles.

    1. That’s an interesting observation! I wonder if others have seen that too. I do think there is a little suspicion sometimes. I have found i just like to hold the door for people. But, as you mention, sometimes that’s a strange thing. Aren’t we odd creatures?

  3. I think all of these are admirable courtesies and I’m pleased to say that I do most of them. There are a couple a find a bit harder – like the spinach in the teeth, or saying no when I don’t want to do something and I confess to not always wanting to know the answer when I ask how someone is!

    1. You know, I only became aware of the whole “how are you?” dilemma when I visited Sweden. Someone there told me that he thought it was weird that Americans ask that question but don’t want to know the answer! Ever since he said said that I’ve thought about it each time I say “how are you?” Even if I don’t want to hear their life story, I do try and actually look whomever I’m asking in the eyes so they know I’m listening. But, I’ll be honest–it’s not always easy!
      You’re definitely not alone in saying no–I don’t think any of us are perfect at that one either. We just have to keep practicing, right?

  4. You’re right about “common” courtesy. Just like “common” sense. If it were really common, more people would have it. I do my best (unless I’m very cranky) to abide by this list. One of the things that gives me most joy is to smile and greet others as I go for my morning walk or while shopping. I do have particular pet peeves about trash and irresponsible dog walkers. And those who text in inappropriate places: walking through parking lots and while driving. I can pick up trash but can’t bring myself to scoop another’s dog poop. I live in the mountains of San Bernardino Cal. It seems that just because people live in the forest, they can leave poop on the trails! I would add to the list: Not ignoring disabled people or the disadvantaged. They don’t want to be stared at, or to be blatantly ignored. They (and caregivers) appreciate smiles and greetings, too. Not to patronize but to acknowledge that we are all human. Guess it goes back to that Golden Rule – Treat others as you want to be treated. Or, how about just plain ol’ consideration. Seems that just isn’t taught much anymore.

    1. I don’t blame you for not wanting to scoop poop. It’s a shame that people do that stuff. Same with throwing orange peels on the ground and justifying it with “it’s organic so it’ll decompose.” While that is true, I still have to look at your orange peel instead of the flowers while it takes 6-9 months for nature to do the work. Not that putting it in the garbage is better for the environment. Ideally, we’d all be composting and recycling. Perhaps we’ll get there.
      Though I don’t have direct experience of being either disabled or disadvantaged, I do relate to your point. Averting my eyes is something I just don’t want to do. Staring is also not okay. I blame my brain for being so quick to see “otherness” rather than connecting to the humanness faster. I’d like to be better at this–though sometimes I fail.

  5. A good list. some of these I’m much better at than others. I would add “be aware of your surroundings” I think most rude behaivior is simply clueless behavior because people are too far in their own head. And not taking rocks from parks: Once at Bryce Canyon I saw a family collecting rocks as souvenirs. Not rocks from the ground, they were actually hammering at rock walls with other rocks trying to break off pieces to keep.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. I think being aware of your surroundings is a very good add. Sometimes people are in their own world–I know that happens to me sometimes. Though I can’t quite imagine ever thinking I “own” the world as that family in Bryce Canyon seemed to. What the heck with that? Definitely a “what not to do.”

  6. OH MY GOODNESS yes! all of this, yes! I’m still working on instilling these practices into the kids. Sometimes my sons are excellent at this, especially little Bash saying “Hello! What’s your name? It’s nice to meet you!” Biff sometimes follows suit, but then other times goes all Boss: “Don’t walk through that door, it’s MY turn!” Sigh. We’re working on it. 🙂

    1. It’s all a work in progress, right? Even as adults we need reminders. Or, I should say, I do. I think adults “know better” and have better impulse control. But my kid I know has two settings–thoughtful and hyperdrive. In hyperdrive he’s loud, thoughtless, heedless of his impact on other people. I’m trying to keep an eye out for what situations trigger this hyperdrive mode and intervene so his thoughtful side gets a better foothold.
      But like you said–we’re all working on it. I love that little Bash is asking people their names and making polite conversation! Adorable.

  7. Ugh, that photo of the foot on the arm rest. That would not make for a comfortable flight!

    I love your list of courtesies, and I think it serves as a great reminder (to myself also 🙂 ). I would like to add to the list “listen”. Have you ever found yourself zoning out as someone is talking, and they stop after asking a question – DEER IN THE HEADLIGHTS. And, embarrassing.

    Listening can go the other way too – when I’m talking and I look over to the person I am talking to, and they are deep in thought over something completely different – it’s uncomfortable.

    1. Excellent addition. Not long ago that thing happened to me! I watched my friend’s eyes disengage as I was speaking. It made me feel bad. And I’d hate to make people feel that way. (Though I am sure I have, unfortunately.) Listening is one of those important investments in relationships we can’t afford not to make. Thanks, Erin. Such a good point.

  8. This list is amazing and on point. My eyes immediately focused on the not reclining your chair. That infuriates me to no end! All these things in the list seem so simple and a no-brainer yet I probably see at least 1 of these broken every day! Last week I saw a woman just throw her garbage out of her car! Who does that?

    1. Seriously–who does do that? That’s dreadful. I feel bad that I generate the garbage, much less chuck it out the window! Not that I’m a saint by any means, but throwing garbage? sheesh.

  9. In the spirit of letting someone know they have spinach in their teeth, you have typos in point 2 and 30. 😊

I love hearing from you! Please share your thoughts.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.