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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Politeness Pays Off

I don't recall ever being formally taught about politeness. I think a lot of politeness is learned from what we observe as children. Of course, manners are taught, but I think manners and politeness are two different branches of the same tree. This tree might be thought of as the tree of being able to get along with others. People probably won't find your company agreeable if you slurp your soup or expel noxious gases and insert your digits in inappropriate places during meals. But chances are high that they'll find you even less desirable to be around if you aren't polite. Yes, politeness includes saying please and thank you, and things of that nature. But I think politeness is a lot deeper than that, as well as a lot simpler. To me, it all comes down to just being kind to others. You can call it The Golden Rule, or kindness, or whatever you'd like. It's about treating others the way you'd like to be treated. And not doing it in the hope that they will be nice to you in return, but because it's the right thing to do, and it feels good to do it.

I am just like everyone else, with many flaws. We all get wrapped up in our own thoughts and tasks and lives from time to time, drifting through things and not seeing what's going on with the other people around us. Maybe that's one of the reasons it feels so good to perform little bits of kindness to others. We have stepped outside of our little bubble for a moment and noticed someone. Who knows, maybe our little bit of politeness will be the one bright moment in their day. 

A few weeks ago, I found myself in one of those mental fogs as I walked in the entrance of the supermarket. Trent had gone ahead to use the restroom, so I was heading over to get a shopping cart and do the dance of the disinfecting wipes. I saw movement out of the corner of my eye and realized that I almost stepped right in front of someone else who was heading over to get a shopping cart as well. Well, I kind of felt like a jerk, so I stopped and turned to the woman with two little girls, and told her to go ahead. She was polite in return and said I should go first. But I insisted that she go first since she had two kids with her. As she walked by, she instantly looked familiar. "Gerry?" I asked. She looked a bit startled and confused as she answered yes. I told her I was Katrina, and we hugged each other, stunned. You see, she had been my manager when I was a bank teller. And the last time we saw each other was more than twenty years ago.

I knew that she didn't have much time since she was with her grand-kids, but she asked me if I was on a particular social network. And by the time I got home, she had sent me a request to connect on said network. No, we aren't hanging out at Starbucks, or having delightful ladies' lunches together. But for me, that one moment of good manners really paid off. Gerry was a wonderful person in my life and career. She was the one I talked to when I didn't know how to deal with a pair of business owners who came to my commercial drive-through window. I told her they made me uncomfortable because they assumed that since I was white like they were, I would find their rude racist jokes and comments to be funny. I wanted to tell them but was afraid they might get back at me by closing their business account. Gerry told me to be true to myself and let them know that I found their comments unacceptable. And if they left our bank, so what? We didn't need customers like them anyway. The funny thing is that when I told them how I felt, they never came to my window again. Why is that so funny? The other commercial teller was latina. Pretty sure they weren't telling any of those jokes over there!

Gerry was also there for me at one of the most difficult times in my life. I had been hospitalized while several doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Doctor Mike walked into my hospital room, took one look at me, and said that I had lupus. Several tests later, his diagnosis was proven to be correct. Within a couple of weeks, this stubborn woman was back at work. I was so weak that I would pick up my cash drawer from the combination cash vault/manager's office, take a few steps, and lean against the wall to rest. It took me several minutes to get to my station, but I did it. I will admit here, for the first time, that there were times that I cried on those long treks. It was frustrating and scary to be so weak. 

It was Gerry who sat me down in the office one day, with tears in her eyes, and told me that everyone was hurting for me. They also wanted so desperately to help me, but I was trying too hard to be strong. How could I tell her that everyone's desire to help me was as unbearable to me as my refusal to accept help was to them? Maybe I should have told her about what happened with Alice when I was in the hospital. Just to make conversation, and I promise you that I was not whining or or why me-ing, I said that I couldn't believe that I was just diagnosed with an incurable disease. Alice started yelling at me to just get over it. Remember, she was the one who beat me when the mom next door put a band-aid on my knee, because I was trying to get attention. Then she beat me when I scraped my knee again and refused the neighbor's offer of another bandage, because I was too dumb to come in out of the rain. So perhaps it is natural that I felt the need to do everything on my own. If my own family felt I needed to pull myself up by my bootstraps, how could I handle such loving kindness from the people I worked with?

Gerry's understanding, warmth, and kindness were a great gift to me. Over the years I have had many positive, loving memories of the years we worked together. If I hadn't stopped for a moment by the shopping carts in the store, I'd have missed her entirely. But taking a moment to be polite had a huge payoff. It allowed me to remember someone who was there for me in many ways, at good times and bad. I have been savoring the renewed memories like a delicious ice pop on a hot day. Yes, politeness is always a good thing, and I'll continue to try and use it on others. But for me, this time I think it really paid off!