Being polite to being nice

Is it really a toss-up between those two ways of being? I heard on a recent trip to Philadelphia that the people of that American city (known as the “city of brotherly love”) are not very polite but they are really nice people, who would not hesitate to help a stranger in need. So, while you may be thrown off by their gruffness as they brush by you on the bus, you can count on their helping you with that heavy suitcase as you get off.

We in India are used to a lack of politeness. People rarely step aside to make way for others; they push to get ahead in queues, and very often we see places reserved for the elderly or persons with disabilities taken up by individuals of neither description. Cars honk rudely on the road, two-wheelers vie with each other to race through the signal, and we ration our use of “please” and “thank you”, often dispensing completely with “excuse me”.

I can’t say the same of niceness, though. I encounter niceness all the time, even when I least expect it. The shopkeeper who will throw in an extra orange over the kilo you’ve paid for. The bus driver who will wait for the running student even as he needs to keep to schedule. The young person at the railway station who will pull your heavy suitcase up as you struggle to hoist it on to the train. At the same time, these small acts of kindness surprise us even when we have all experienced them – because we are conditioned to expecting rudeness and meanness.

While we talk a lot about value education in our schools, I wonder if we do enough to build cultures of politeness and helpfulness – what I’ve been calling “niceness”. There are of course the obligatory moral science and civic education classes that students mostly tune out of, bored by their preachy and didactic tone. The good conduct prizes don’t seem to mean much. We may be nice enough to those we regard as “our people” but think of it as too much of a stretch to extend that niceness to others, unconnected to us, or whose opinion doesn’t really matter.

And even though politeness may sometimes be a surface quality, it can go a long way to create a pleasant atmosphere, at least within familiar surroundings. It may not be advisable to smile at every stranger but inside a school, in a community, a few extra smiles and pleasant greetings can set the tone for a productive day. It could even inject cheer into someone’s lousy morning.

I’m not really sure what we could do to turn ourselves into a more considerate, pleasant, society, even as we grapple with so many everyday challenges (not the least of which are bad roads, extreme weather, dust, and noise). Maybe that’s something to think about as we head into the summer?

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