Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Case of Excessive Courtesy

A reader of my blog asked me how I manage to accomplish so much. I gave her a list of reasons why I've ended up the way I am. Not all of the reasons or noble or pretty. There has to be an element of obsessiveness for me to do all that I do. I do so many things well, and I do so much, something has just got to give. My hubby would cheerfully give you a long list of my defects. Perhaps the quirkiest is my inability to keep track of simple things. I lose keys, credit cards, change purse, pens, lip balm, and mitts. Hubby says I'd lose my head if it wasn't screwed on tight.

I got caught out yesterday in a moment of absent-mindedness. The incident and the recovery is an example I think, of the Canadian habit of excessive courtesy. I have a theory, too, on why we do it.

I plan to go to the YMCA to work out after we are let out early on New Year's Eve. I've had an exciting week of physical activity, shifting files, and I am eager to keep the momentum going. I hop over from my secondary office to my primary to pick up my gym bag. The YMCA is right across the street from there. I open up the bag, and there are no gym shoes. Drat. I'd left them at home. Anyways, I go for my swim. Still burning with excess desire, I decide to finish off with twenty minutes on the recumbent cycle. I've cycled at home in my socks before. No harm, right? Did I mention I am wearing thick, day-glo orange socks?

I love thick socks. They cured me of a heel spur years ago, and I won't give them up. These socks are old and chunky, losing their elasticity. They were a poor choice this morning, as they bunched up in my shoes as I shifted files. I'd ended up taking off my shoes on the job so I wouldn't be walking on bunched-up cotton. Perhaps this old chunky pair are due for the dumpster.

Anyways, I am padding through the exercise room in my day-glo chunky old cotton socks. I reach the recumbent cycle at the end of the row, and I am pounced upon by one of the staff. "Excuse me", as he glances nervously at my feet, "Do you have gym shoes?"

I am mortified.

"I am so sorry. I thought I had them with me but I don't. Would it be all right if I went on the machine anyways?"

We jumble our apologies and our reasons together in a rush,

"Maybe this once."
"I won't forget my shoes again."
"You can't go over to the weight area."
"Of course."
"And the treadmill. I hate to think what would happen if you had an accident on the treadmill."
"I won't be going on the treadmill today."
"I'd hate to be responsible...just this once."
"I'm sorry to put you through this. I will be sure to bring my shoes from now on."
We agree I can have my twenty minutes on the cycle machine.
There was such a complex interaction of empathy and a desire to please in that short exchange. Neither of us wanted to dissapoint. He had his duty towards the safety of the members, of course. He had to confront me, as unpleasant as that might be. I wanted to avoid embarrassment and the extra chore of coming back another day through the traffic and storms. It got me to thinking how many times that week I'd heard strangers reflexively apologizing for the smallest things.

It seems to me the apology index went up as soon as our weather became brutal. Edmonton has finally been hit with cold and snow. This week also I finished "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Dr. Stephen Covey. It took me a year to finish the book because I got stuck on habit three. The third habit is to do those things you know would make the biggest impact on your life. Covey askes, pointedly, why we don't do them? Because it is easier to ignore the big things! My big thing is exercise. Surprise. Anyways, I made it past habit three and the rest of the book was a cinch.

Covey speaks of our need to build each other's Emotional Quotient. If someone's EQ is low, it doesn't matter how reasonable our request. Their reserves are depleted and they are in no frame of mind to grant requests. Covey impresses the requirement to "seek to understand" before we strive to be understood. This is habit five.

It seems to me a batch of tough weather takes a toll on us all. There's the planning of the trip and the coordination of errands. No-one wants to take the trip twice. There's the dressing and the bracing for the hit of frigid air. There's sweeping and shovelling and skidding and caution. It's like the entire community's EQ takes a dip with the thermometer.

It seems that in the midst of adversity, we make a community decision to be nice. To show extra courtesy. To be kind and polite, and if necessary, apologize where no apology is needed. Because we all know deep down that we need the boost.

Like a community of winter birds, huddling to stay warm through the dark nights, we help get through the cold together.

So that's my theory. Canadians are extra nice because we never know when we might need a boost. It's like we pad our guts with an extra reserve of warmth. By experience we know we are all in this together. The happier you are, the better off I am too.
The blogger, ACPL Kids hosts the picture above, "New Socks" by Bob Shea.