#paganvalues The fine art of courteous living









I generally don’t miss Indiana. The near-caste system mentality of the town I lived in guaranteed I never made an authentic connection to anyone, and while I know living anywhere else in Indiana would have produced different, happier results for me, we lived where we lived and my happiness and health was not a factor in that decision. As it is now, when I’m approached by people from my childhood via Facebook (they are why I hate Facebook), it’s strange, distorting, slightly nauseating: these beings that were never really friends want me to be interested in their children, their litany of health problems, the trivia of their daily lives. Even the interests I share put me off when they express them: I want them to keep their hands the hell off gardening and Doctor Who.

Mostly I ignore the overtures these days. A friend request without a note gets ignored. Yet there is one way to work around my resistance: an act of courtesy. One woman who was my first experience with female competitive syndrome and betrayal got through because she acknowledged my father’s death when I was at a weak moment. ((I still think she’s sniffing for when my family’s property goes up for sale.))  A few got through just because we at least made motions of friendship, and never did anything intentionally cruel to each other, or had made some effort to stay in touch during college. For the most part, the tribe of my birthplace consists of the persons most foreign to me in the world, and associating with them or even witnessing their lives through the filter of Facebook actually disgusts me.

Yet, paradoxically, these people harbor a few cultural habits, gestures of daily interchange, that I quite miss. Minnesotans did not do the following at all when I first moved here, and still don’t most of the time. These actions are small, simple, create a temporary sense of community – and when I do them in this state, I often get strange, suspicious reactions.

The two gestures from my Hoosier history I miss the most?

Waving “thanks” at stop signs, and putting a groceries divider down for the person behind you.

Waving “thanks”

In Indiana, if you choose to yield your right of way to the other person, that person acknowledges it by waving “thank you.” Similarly, waves when you change lanes in tight traffic or “apology” waves when you realize you made the error happen frequently.  It’s a small gesture that shows a recognition of the humanity/will of the person behind the wheel.

I have never – EVER – seen this done in Minnesota by a Minnesotan. Most Minnesotans just kind of glare, and even the phrase “thank you” often has to be forced in situations where most people indicate thanks are appropriate, such as gift exchanges.

Do not extrapolate this behavior as an indicator that people from Indiana are nice. Those that live in the Chicago metro (think as New Jersey is to NYC) are among the most aggressive, hostile, and mean-spirited drivers in the country. Mike commented that he had never seen such a bizarre combination of courtesy – gestures, waves, acknowledgements – with such outright assholery in his life. When someone runs up your bumper in a tailgate, they make eye contact. They turn around and look at you before they cut you off, steal a parking space you signaled for patiently.

What makes it different is that even though so much behavior is awful, the courteous, habitual gestures, those little bits of positive energy remind you that the person behind the wheel and windows of the other car still knows there’s a person in your car, and even if that person has a low opinion of you, the basic need to acknowledge a kindness matters.

I don’t miss the aggressive, territorial behaviors designed to constantly teach me (or anyone else down the economic chain) “my place.”  But I honestly do miss people waving “thank you” when I yield my right of way at a stop sign. Minnesotans almost all treat any kindnesses with suspicion, especially if they know you’re not Minnesotan. At stop signs, they stare straight ahead, and grab the waived yield as though it’s their right – there’s no gestures of appreciation, smiles, or waves. Shutting out the stranger means more to Minnesotans than connecting to the neighbor.

Putting the grocery divider behind you

I lived in Minnesota for almost seven years before another person did the “place the grocery divider behind yours,” thing for me. I had continued to do it – it took nothing from me, and gave small relief to persons behind me juggling three kids, $300 of groceries and a Smartphone argument with their mothers more than once – and while some people to this day respond with Minnesotan suspicion (what are you going to ask me for?) it seems like over time, reactions to this gesture have softened. One day, I did this at Target for a young hippie woman standing behind me, and her face just lit up. I had introduced her to something new, something wonderful, a random act of kindness that was just so easy. Within a week, every time I went to a store where I had to stand in line, someone put the grocery divider down behind their groceries for me. This happened about three years ago; now I receive this courtesy about 70% of the time and I give it 100% of the time. Sometimes the cashiers even do it for people.

These small gestures that I miss are of course not specific to any Pagan religion. They’re not specific to any religion. But courtesy, and small acts of kindness, are one of the ways that we express our values and put them into action.

I think a lot of people have confused courtesy with formality, especially in the US, where formality is often viewed as inauthentic or “for business situations only.” It’s a sad state of affairs, because courtesy in action calls on us to draw upon our skills of empathy, compassion and awareness – and courtesies actually can give us a formula to follow for how to go about being considerate of the feelings of others when we in fact can’t know what another person’s inner dialogue or courtesy is. This isn’t the stuff of forcing beliefs for the sake of “etiquette” – DAR made me bristle more than once by listing me as Mrs. Husband’s Name, and it got so irritating, and I found that, combined with the “we are a Christian chapter,” approach  rude enough that I resigned. This is the stuff of helping us get along when we know we all have different ideas about the world. For a key as to what to keep, and what to toss: good manners and good rules about manners allow you to learn about a person. Outdated etiquette involves you making assumptions about and for a person.

Courtesy in action does the following:

  • Expresses appreciation.
  • Offers assistance in a way that leaves the recipient free to decline, or free to accept without obligation beyond the phrase “thank you.”
  • Invites a person to feel comfortable, especially in social settings. The proper introduction is crucial to this – and few people practice this method at all anymore.
  • Inquires as to boundaries.
  • Invites further intimacy and connection, according to specific rules and phrases. In other words, the rules of courtesy/etiquette are the ways in which you let people know they are welcome within your circle, and at what circle they are welcomed.

Appreciation and assistance are detailed as above. Inquiries as to boundaries and intimacy are done in stages, with invitations and polite inquiries – and yes, looking into etiquette guides can help.

The one I think that most people do not know how to do properly is the proper introduction. This is not a formal introduction – formal introductions only happen onstage in the US. This is for informal, common to the US situations. The two most common ways these are done are the two worst possible introductions:

Erroneous introduction #1: “Max, Worthington. Worthington, Max.”

Even if you have spoken to each of these people about the other, this is the wrong way to do it. There’s no information, no point of inquiry, no reason to talk. It’s actually an incredibly crappy intro.

Erroneous introduction #2:“Max, you must meet Worthington. I love his rose garden!” “Worthington, this is Max. You’ve heard me speak of him.”

This one is trickier: when you introduce two people to each other, the above is technically correct. But empathy and listening skills matter. If Worthington is violently allergic to roses, it’s just not a great topic to raise – even if the rose garden interests you. You must come up with something that would interest Worthington about Max – not what would interest you – and you must also give Max a reason that’s interesting to Max so that he will engage with Worthington. If you know both these guys and practice good active listening skills, you should easily think of something they have both spoken about that is a shared interest, even if it’s just that they recently watched the same movie. If you’re really and TRULY drawing a blank on a commonality, tell each person how you know the other one. It’s not ideal (and in some cases you may have to just lie) but it at least fills in something that can start a conversation.

Just being a dink: No introduction. This only ever happens to me in Minnesota, so maybe it’s just the “I hate strangers, and you’re a stranger forever,” mentality. It’s one where you go to an event or walk into an establishment with a person, and the person you go with never makes any effort to introduce you, not even with the lame “Name, name,” thing. I have had this happen so many times that I’ve worked out my own strategy for it: I just introduce myself, and ask how the person I’m addressing knows the person I’m with. While the conversation may be awkward and stumbling, it’s better than just standing beside my ill-mannered companion in silence.

Correct introduction: “Hi Max, this is my friend Worthington. I understand that he plays tennis at the same club you do. Worthington, weren’t you looking for some advice about re-stringing rackets?”

You’ve given them something they have in common, and even found them something by which they may start their conversation. How Max and Worthington fare from there is on them; perhaps you’ve united a future men’s doubles pair to champion Wimbledon, but if it all ends in a grizzly cage match involving yellow balls and racket string, you are not responsible.

While not expressly a Pagan value, acts of courtesy do several positive things that facilitates both community and culture: it makes people feel welcome and heard, it allows a formula for appropriate expression and it properly defines boundaries. Learning the externalized rules of etiquette can even help people who consider themselves “socially awkward” skip past some elements of awkwardness, by giving them a way to ask people to report on their emotional status rather than trying to extrapolate it from cues that are not consistent from person to person.

Courtesy is a personal value of mine, not necessarily a Pagan one. I simply think that it translates as a way to bridge gaps not just between Pagans, but between Pagans and their neighbors.


  1. Eli

    Fascinating! I do the wave-in-traffic thing all the time, especially on the highway when someone slows down to let me merge in. And I didn’t learn that ’til I moved to MN.

    For a while, I was so obssessive about the grocery divider that I would automatically put it down whenever I unloaded my cart or basket – even if no one was behind me in the lane!

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