What is Politeness?

Politeness to All

It needs to be emphasized that your manners, no matter how polished they may be, will be worth little unless you are ready to extend the same courtesy to all people, irrespective of their rank, wealth or station in life. Common sense and the rules of etiquette will, of course, suggest differences of approach according to the rank or dignity of the person with whom we are dealing. After all we do not meet a bishop in the same way as we meet a classmate. The important thing is that true charity be extended to all, for charity is the foundation of politeness.

At a Royal Garden Party people have been known to push and shove and maul one another, to walk on flower-beds and show the most obvious signs of boorishness in order to get near the royal person. Once there, they change the mask and turn on a display of the best party manners. There is no genuine courtesy in people who behave in this manner. They are merely satisfying their vanity and curiosity. Their conduct is essentially selfish, and selfishness is the reverse of politeness.

A selective sort of courtesy, carefully adapted to the company in which a person finds himself, is a sham and a hoax. The sooner it is exposed, the better for its perpetrator and his victims. In his play Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw wrote: “The great secret is not having bad manners or good manners or any other particular sort of manners, but having the same manners for all human souls.”

True politeness, like charity, is universal, leading us to see in every person we meet the essential dignity of the human soul and to recognize our neighbour at all times as an actual or potential member of the Mystical Body of Christ.

Politeness a Social Need

There are times when we envy our remote ancestors their simple lives, as we compare their way of living with the complex set of social relationships in which human living is now involved. Human society would have demanded a set of rules to govern polite behaviour even without the higher incentive of Christian charity. We have that set of rules, an elaborate code without which we would live less happily ourselves and would certainly be a cause of annoyance to others. Human society without the gracious lubricant of courtesy just could not function; it would creak and break down like an un-oiled car. Politeness is undoubtedly the good oil of society.

Mankind today, whether we look at it from the family, the national or the international point of view, is desperately in need of that spirit of understanding, that mutual reverence and basic charity which are to be found in the truly polite.

The Christian Gentleman

The unhappy story of modern racial outrages would make us wonder whether we are not casting out even the simple courtesies of the most primitive of men. As Gilbert Harding has said: “Individually we jostle and scramble for pence or promotion or power, or even just for a seat on the bus. Nationally, our affairs are conducted with all the grace of a bricklayers’ brawl. Internationally, the nations or groups of nations snarl across the frontiers, and when they talk about rights they mean no more than their own.” We may be inclined to think that we as individuals can do little about a situation like this. There is no need to be so pessimistic. The influence of the good example of even one person who practises Christ-like courtesy can help to change all this.

Courtesy and the Grace of God


One of the most impressive aspects of the conduct of Bernadette Soubirous when Our Lady appeared to her at Lourdes in 1858 was the peasant girl’s perfect dignity and poise. One observer, well practised in the social graces, declared that he had never seen such a graceful and respectful bow as Bernadette made to Our Lady. Bernadette came from a very poor family living at the time in a disused gaol. She was by no means a bright child and had received little education. How then did she acquire this exquisite grace of manner? It is not hard to see that it was one of the external signs of the grace of God in her heart.

If true politeness comes from the heart, we must look for gracious manners in one who possesses in his heart the sanctifying and transforming grace of God. However, the indwelling of that Grace will not show itself in courteous behaviour if we allow self-interest to govern our dealings with others. If we fail in courtesy, our offence is nearly always one of selfishness, for, as we have seen, selfishness is politeness in reverse.

Another lesson to be learnt from the gracious meeting of the Queen of Heaven with the peasant girl of Lourdes is that arrogance or snobbery should have no place in our dealings with others. What a contrast there is between the genuine courtesy shown in the apparitions and the conduct of those who, lacking the beautiful and precious grace of God, seek a poor substitute in the superficial graces of speech, dress and deportment!

Why be Polite?

As Catholics we are closely united with Christ, the source of all grace. We should therefore be conspicuous examples of Christian courtesy. Listen to the words of Rev. Father Richard Rooney S.J.: “Whatever we may say of others, it is certainly true that Catholics should be the most courteous of men and women. After all, it is their life’s work to reproduce the courtesy of Christ, the world’s most courteous man. If they will treat others as Christ would treat them were He here in person, if they will treat others with the courtesy they would accord to Christ Himself were He there in these others’ stead, then so much that is fine and loving and lovable would come to life again.” If only we would realize in practice the beautiful ideals expressed in these words, then what is so glibly termed “graceful living” would become in a very real sense “grace-full living”.

Courtesy and the Golden Rule

We need look no further than the words of Our Lord to find a perfect definition of courtesy. When He gave us the Golden Rule to “do unto others as you would that they should do to you” He at the same time laid down the principle of true politeness a principle of supernatural charity. Christ, knowing that at least the normal ones amongst us are not likely to wish evil upon ourselves, much less inflict upon ourselves deliberate harm, could safely propose as a guide to charity, and hence to courtesy, the degree of interest we take in our own well-being. It is almost as if Our Lord found some use for that self-interest which is so much a part of human nature.

If we have charity, we will have at least the spirit of true Christian courtesy. That spirit will dispose us to acquire, almost instinctively, the external graces of manner that go with courtesy. It is all as simple as that. It cannot be repeated too often that the impolite person is a selfish person. If we possess the practical charity that Our Lord enjoins in the Golden Rule, we will need no rules to urge us to recognize the rights of others and to defer to them. Whether it be getting into a bus, taking a meal, queuing up at a sports ground, playing a game, receiving guests, writing a letter, or any one of a thousand other social acts, we will not be tempted to join in the mad scramble to be first everywhere and to get the best of everything. We will recognize that we have no prior rights where all are fundamentally equal.

Beware of Substitutes

We live in an age of gloss and glamour and Technicolor. It can all be so exciting; but we must be all the more careful not to be so dazzled by surface tricks that we forget to look for true quality behind what meets the eye. The slick, bright magazine cover or book-jacket is no true indication of what awaits you inside; the lounge-suite with its finely grained and highly polished veneer may be tottering and creaking under your modest weight within a few months; the car with its glossy deco and sleek lines may leave you next week “alone and palely loitering” on an outback road, without a tow-truck in sight or even a decent bomb to blow the whole thing up; the smooth, well-dressed socialite whose manners at yesterday’s cocktail party were so very, very nice may today look languidly in the other direction when he passes you in the street.

Window-dressing and salesmanship will never sell courtesy to the person who knows that the real thing comes from the heart and that it is not something to be put on or off to suit the occasion. While it is the expression of charity, courtesy is rooted in faith whereby we see our neighbours and ourselves as brothers in God’s family. Beware then of substitutes for politeness either in yourself or in others, for there is no place for snobs, fops, palaverers or confidence-men in such a family.

The genuine courtesy that one looks for in the Catholic has been described as “a beautiful, fine, human, natural virtue which has been taken to the baptismal font of grace and faith and charity and has been baptized into Christ, our Brother and Exemplar.”

Courtesy and the Cross

Taking Christ as our model and trying to reproduce Him in our conduct, we can never be far from the Cross, because Christ and the Cross are inseparable. The Cross shadowed all his actions, and if we mean to follow this Divine Model of courtesy our actions likewise will be signed with the Sign of the Cross. This is to say that the practice of politeness very often involves self-denial.

Our human nature urges us to seek the society of our fellowmen, and yet the qualities of understanding, tact, good humour and patience, which are so necessary to make the association agreeable, do not by any means come naturally to us. To attain them we must acquire self-control, which means self-denial; and self-denial is only another name for the unselfishness, which characterises true politeness.

There is self-denial in standing back to let others enter a room before you, in offering your seat to a lady, in eating with restraint, in allowing right-of-way to a motorist, in refraining from monopolizing a conversation. Therefore, if we do these five things for the right motive, they can become truly Christian acts that will help to sanctify us as well as form our manners.

Christ our Model


If a man’s actions under provocation are the real test of the genuineness of his courtesy, what man was ever so outrageously provoked as the gentle Christ? Only a divine patience could restrain Him from rebuking, as they deserved those whose conduct and speech were so often cynical, obstinate and insulting.

Even among His close followers His sensitive nature must have been often pained by conduct that was selfish or uncouth, for whatever may be said of the loyalty and goodwill of the Apostles, their manners were not always above reproach. Their courteous Master at times gently corrected them, but never showed signs of disgust. When gathering His followers, He might have chosen some of the more elegant gentlemen of the Jewish metropolis. They were no doubt better washed and more fragrantly oiled than the poor fishermen He had around Him. Christ as man was the most perfect of men; no man was ever as physically sensitive. Yet He never showed annoyance at the lack of external grace in His Apostles or embarrassed them by drawing attention to their social shortcomings. Only a show of childish vanity or a lack of faith in Him brought a gentle reprimand.

One writer has described Christ’s courteous relations with His Apostles in these words: “The Apostles were men, for the most part, without education, good breeding or politeness; yet never did He separate Himself from them; never did He appear pained or dejected by their ill manners. He instructed them with patience, reprimanded them with meekness and gave them nothing to suffer. He lived with them on a kind of equality, always ready to serve them, and to receive their least services with such sweetness and affability that hardly could it be perceived that He was the Master.”

Gospel Examples

In a simple but memorable scene the Gospel presents the tired Saviour sitting beside a well. There He meets a woman who has come to draw water and He respectfully asks her for a drink. She, being a Samaritan, does not expect the normal civilities from a Jew. The conversation that follows convinces the woman that she is speaking to no ordinary man. In a friendly manner He reveals some of the more sordid secrets of her life. As we see this much-married woman running back to town, twittering with excitement, we can only trust that the Divine Courtesy, which she was privileged, to experience on that day changed her life.

The striking feature of this incident is not only the manner in which Our Lord spoke to the woman, as though she, a frail mortal if ever there was one, was worthy of some special respect from God Himself, but also the fact that the courteous Christ was careful to save her from embarrassment by ensuring that the Apostles were absent at the time. Christ had tactfully sent them into the town to do some shopping.

            The miracle at the Marriage-Feast of Cana provides another example of Christ’s thoughtful consideration of others. He anticipated His divine plans by miraculously changing the water into wine in order to save His host and hostess from embarrassment. He did not need to be told that the bride and bridegroom would be getting off to a bad start in their married life if the wedding guests had to be sent home thirsty. He not only provided them with enough wine to bring the feast to a happy end, but He also saw to it that the wine was of the best quality.

We might have expected that after His Resurrection the time for these little acts of human courtesy would be at an end. That was far from being the case. Even though the Apostles now had more than enough reason to feel ashamed, their gentle Master was still as attentive as ever to their needs. He appeared to them when they were fishing on the lake. When they at last recognized Him standing on the shore they thought no more of their fishing and rowed frantically towards the land. There they found that the Master had thoughtfully prepared a fire on the beach. It is pleasant to picture the somewhat self-conscious Apostles gathering round that fire and enjoying breakfast with their risen Lord. If they were not too stunned to realise what was happening, they were at the same time receiving a good lesson in thoughtful anticipation of another’s wants.

Yet this most courteous of men was betrayed by one of His favoured friends. If we did not have the Scriptural assurance for it we could scarcely believe that Judas in his act of betrayal desecrated the sweetest and most eloquent of human gestures the kiss of friendship. Yet even the horror of this incident is relieved by the shining tenderness of Christ’s gentle rebuke: “Friend, whereto art thou come?”