Uncommon Courtesy

We keep hearing about the death of civility -- but it's alive and well in a place you'd least expect.

By Neena Samuel and Joseph K. Vetter from Reader's Digest | July 2006

Overall, men were the most willing to help, especially when it came to document drops. In those, men offered aid 63 percent of the time, compared to 47 percent among women. Of course, men weren’t entirely democratic about whom they’d help. All of them held the door for RD’s female reporter, and were more than twice as likely to help her pick up fallen papers than they were to help our male reporter. “I’ll hold the door for whoever’s behind me,” said Pete Muller, 27, an account executive from Brooklyn. “But I’m definitely more conscious of women!” he added with a smile.

Mother Knows Best
By far, the most common reason people cited for being willing to go out of their way to help others was their upbringing. “It’s the way I was raised,” said one young woman who held a door open despite struggling with her umbrella on a frigid, sleety day in Brooklyn.

Her sentiment was echoed by Christine DuBois, a 49-year-old sales manager from Bayside, Queens. DuBois was headed to the gym when she stopped to retrieve a pile of scattered papers. “It’s something that’s taught to you when you’re young,” she said.

A few people, including Frederick Martin, 29, credited their mothers’ influence specifically. “My mom brought me up like that,” Martin said. “It’s pure manners.”

What Goes Around…
Another reason people are quick to be courteous: “You do what you’d want other people to do if it happened to you,” said Christine Rossi, who pitched in on an early-morning document drop. Dennis Kleinman, a 57-year-old doctor and writer, used one word to sum up what drove his impulse to help: “Empathy.” He came to the aid of an RD reporter when a middle-aged woman ignored a pile of papers in front of a shop on Manhattan’s East Side. “The same thing happens to me, and I appreciate it when someone takes 10 to 15 seconds of their valuable time to help,” he said.

Excuses, Excuses
The reporters did run into a few courtesy clods. In one case, while an RD staffer was inside a Starbucks interviewing a woman who’d passed the door test, a dozen oblivious people stepped over a second staffer’s fallen papers. Another time, a wise guy offered only a snarky comment on our clumsiness: “That guy had too much coffee!” he cracked.

And just when we thought we’d heard every excuse in the book for not helping, along came Margot Zimmerman. The 44-year-old computer saleswoman was on her way into a Queens Starbucks when a reporter dropped his folder of papers right at her feet. Looking down, Zimmerman stepped gingerly around the papers, then entered the shop. “I’m probably one of the most courteous people,” she insisted later. “I pick up every other person’s dog poop. I help old ladies across the street. But when he dropped his papers, he made such a face.”

Thankfully, such responses were the exception, not the rule. Which makes New York City a pretty darn polite place — the most polite major city in the entire world, in case you missed it before. We realize this isn’t a rigorous scientific study, but we believe it is a reasonable real-world test of good manners around the globe. And it’s comforting to know that in a place where millions of people jostle one another each day in a relentless push to get ahead, they’re able to do it with a smile and a thank-you. Hey, if they can make nice here, they can make nice anywhere.

Become more interesting every week!

Get our Read Up newsletter

Sending Message
how we use your e-mail