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Politeness has actually been well defined as benevolence in trifles. Like benevolence on a larger scale, it consists of a sensation in the mind as well as the performance of those outside actions by which that feeling is manifested. The internal sensation, which is a vital part of true politeness, is the exact same all over the world, however much its manifestations might differ.
It is the desire to put those whom we satisfy perfectly at their ease, and save them from every kind of petty discomfort and annoyance.
Altruism in its common sense indicates love of our fellow-men and a desire to do all we can to promote their long-term joy.
The limited part of altruism called politeness needs only an inclination to make them delighted briefly, while they remain in our presence, and when this can be done without any sacrifice on our part or just with a minor sacrifice of personal comfort.
It is possible that politeness may be dissociated from general quality of character, as when it comes to Charles II.
, who showed his amazing urbanity of way even on his death-bed by apologising for being “a most unconscionable time dying.”
In specific cases there might even be a dispute in between politeness and ordinary benevolence. For instance, a medical professional might, by politely sacrificing his location in a conveyance to a woman, get here late at a sickbed where his existence is urgently needed. In such cases, of course, politeness needs to accept the higher obligation.
The specific actions in which politeness appears differ according to situations and according to the customs of different nations. As long as society acknowledges distinctions in rank, politeness requires us to show marks of regard to our superiors, that are not expected in the existence of our equals and inferiors.
Different guidelines of behaviour have to be observed, according as we remain in the street or in the drawing-room, in the house or at school, in the business of buddies or of strangers. There is likewise to be thought about the fantastic diversity of social rules which differentiates one country from another.
A polite Frenchman in his own country raises his hat to a shop-girl when he enters a shop, but if he did so in England, he would be laughed at, and the object of his polite attention would probably resent his conduct.
The difference in these matters is so great between the East and the West, that it is very difficult for Europeans and Indians to meet in social intercourse without unintentionally offending one another. In such circumstances a more liberal interpretation of the rule of politeness requires a large amount of mutual indulgence.
Politeness, besides being a duty that we owe to others, is a valuable possession for ourselves. It costs nothing, and yet may in many cases bring much profit.
The great advantage of this excellence of conduct was very clearly expressed by Dr. Johnson, when he said that the difference between a well-bred and an ill- bred man is that one immediately attracts your liking, the other your aversion.
“You love the one,” he observes, “till you find reason to hate him; you hate the other till you find reason to love him.” In this way, the well-bred man has in his politeness what is equivalent to a valuable letter of introduction, that recommends him to every one with whom he comes into contact.
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