Bruce Maiman: In praise of common courtesy

Published: Tuesday, Apr. 15, 2014 - 12:00 am

It was such a little thing.

The crowded coffee shop where I planned to spend a half-hour on the computer had one lone table with no chairs. It happens. Often, groups sitting together will borrow chairs where they can find them.

Next to me at this empty table were two tables with one person sitting at each. At the first table, a gentleman had three chairs: the one he was sitting in, one empty and one on which he had set some magazines. The other gentleman had two chairs and was expecting a friend.

I asked Three-Chair Man if I might borrow one. Sorry, he was expecting a friend, too. I didn’t ask about the chair he was using for his magazines.

No problem. I’ll kneel until a chair becomes available. That’s when Two-Chair Man got up, walked to the other side of the room where he’d spotted a vacant chair I hadn’t seen, and brought it over.

He didn’t have to do that, of course, but I was so grateful, I thanked him several times and gave him the free drink card the cashier had just given to me. Upon leaving – by now, his companion had arrived – I thanked him again. He brushed it off as no big deal, “happy to do it,” and extended a handshake. I’d have asked his name to salute him in print but guessed that he wouldn’t have cared for such recognition. Courteous people don’t do courteous things for acknowledgment; they do them because it’s the right thing to do.

Hence, we call it common courtesy, though we often question whether it’s all that common anymore.

It’s that loud cellphone talker or movie theater texter, the person who finished off the last of the coffee at work and didn’t bother brewing another pot.

We see someone park in the handicapped spot and get out of the vehicle wearing a tracksuit. In the supermarket, they block the entire aisle with their shopping cart while deciding which brand of cereal to buy. And then they turn up at the checkout aisle with 30 items while waiting in the express lane. In the parking lot, they never put the cart back in the designated bin.

How often are we inconvenienced by the inconsiderate behavior of others? Usually it’s a minor inconvenience, but it seems to happen often enough to feel like death by a thousand paper cuts. We sigh and say, that’s the way the world is today, which is why I was so grateful to the thoughtful fellow in the coffee shop.

Yet, I doubt most of us are like the other guy – Three-Chair Man. True, some people are just jerks, but most people acting inconsiderately aren’t willfully doing so, are they? Often, inconsiderate actions are simply the result of unawareness. How many times have any of us unwittingly cut someone off in traffic, leading a fellow motorist to yell, “You jerk!” – and then sigh and say, “That’s the way the world is today”?

The greater truth, probably, is that maybe only 10 percent ruin it for the rest of us. That’s applicable to anything, I suppose – driving, sports fans, gun owners, neighbors, taxpayers, politicians ... OK, maybe not politicians. We acquire our prejudices based on the worst of us. We decide the whole world is going to hell thanks to the few people trying to lead us there.

It feels saturating because all we ever hear about in the media is the worst of the human condition. But news is news because it’s a deviation from the norm. All that bad news we constantly hear or read about isn’t the usual, but the unusual. That’s why it’s news: not because it’s bad but because it’s rare.

So has common courtesy become so uncommon that when it happens, it’s now news? For me, recognizing someone for doing the right thing simply felt like the right thing to do. Perhaps some readers will see that in themselves. Others may wonder if they aren’t doing it enough. Maybe it’ll remind that “10 percent” of what they’re capable of doing.

It turns out the guy with the two chairs was reading his own copy of The Bee while waiting for his friend to arrive, so maybe he’ll recognize himself here, though I’d rather the other guy read this and ponder why he didn’t sacrifice that third chair – the one with the magazines on it. Funny thing is, as I was leaving, he moved to a newly empty table with only two chairs. Maybe he didn’t realize what he’d done. Maybe he was just a jerk. Or maybe that’s the way the world is.

I hope not.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at

Read more articles by Bruce Maiman

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