A Tip of My Hat by George Merrill


I recently had surgery. The wound was messy. When I came home I wasn’t sure I knew how to change the dressing. My wife and I went to the Choice One Urgent Care Clinic in Easton. They dressed the wound and showed me how to care for it. They were helpful.

Today medical facilities send satisfaction surveys to patients inquiring about their experience.

The questions are interesting. They’re variations of what I would call social courtesies or even kindnesses. Questions like was I listened to? Were staff and physicians attentive to my needs? Was I made to feel at ease and appropriately reassured? The focus of the survey seemed less about any particulars of the medical interventions I received and mostly about the way they were delivered. It seemed to me the primary question being asked was ‘did I feel treated as a person worthy of respect?’

I did.

Today’s hot button issues revolve around just such matters; how we treat one another. The #metoo movement grew out of a long history of women who were not treated as though they were worthy of respect or common courtesy, The civil rights movement was a cry for dignity and respect. The effects of disrespect have created a kind of social dissonance which deprives us all of that sense of basic goodness and belonging that we all crave in the conduct of our lives.

As an octogenarian, I see the passing of many social courtesies once generally observed. Even to name some probably earns me the ‘fossil of the year award.’

There was a time when meeting someone for the first time, you extended them the courtesy of a title, like addressing them, Mrs. or Mr. Smith, until they invited you to call them by their given name. Leading with first name seems to me superficial, intimacy not earned, and not creating the space beginning relationships need for blending. Familiarity is not the same as intimacy. Intimacy is gained by trust and it takes time.

Public discourse has grown crude. “Saying it like it is” has become revered by some as no-nonsense truth telling. It has earned admiration in some quarters, even heroism or a mark of personal authenticity by others. ‘Saying it like it is’ frequently involves putting matters in the crudest possible terms what normally would not be said at all in polite company or if said at all, certainly more tactfully. The ‘in your face’ character of ‘saying it like it is’ gains attention, but leaves shaky credibility. If our experience in the last year is any indication, saying it like it is can be just as deceptive and misleading as any slick con-artist. Saying it “like it is” is designed to gain attention, a form of exhibitionism, and not to establish truth. Tact is becoming obsolete.

Social courtesies are a way of acknowledging and honoring community norms. Men once removed their hats as a token of respect upon entering a house or church. Such gestures signify that we agree certain places or occasions warrant respect.

I watched an old movie from the forties noting the way people dressed in public places. My guess is that dressing more formally was not a statement as much about themselves as it was extending a courtesy to others with whom they were gathered. Being seen in public required some implied deference to others, the way some of us today might dress for religious services, weddings and funerals.

The absence of commonly observed social courtesies lends to a feeling of unease and uncertainty – if not suspicion among strangers. A culture that has ceased observing social courtesies becomes the unweeded garden that Shakespeare once described: “where things rank and gross grow untended.”

We’re not taught how to relate to others. We’re flaming individualists, but clueless in a community.

Op-ed columnist David Shribman, writing in the Star Democrat recently, tells of Kerry Cronin, a professor at Boston College. She believes there’s a scarcity of social skills today, particularly for young people who have no idea how to date. She offers a freshman course in dating which has become heavily subscribed. Surprisingly, almost none of her students have dated. They don’t know how to ask someone out or to plan a nice outing. They are not sure how to pick someone up, who’s to pay and how to talk in ways that help couples get to know and trust each other. “This,” says Dr. Cronin, “is a lost social script.”

I find her course a creative way to teach our young what today’s world has lost to modernity: being with each other sensitively and graciously.

She describes her class. “Dating teaches you how to begin to say things that you really mean, which is on the way to be able to make a promise and keep it. And although not all dating leads to a commitment, it is a way to start practicing keeping your word and meaning what you say with your words, your body and your time.”

After class she assigns students homework – specifically arranging a date. They come to class afterward and share how it went. “They talk about how it felt to make themselves vulnerable, about their fears, about choosing the person for the date and how hard it was to take a chance. One of the big things for them was what to talk about on the date, what to ask that is not too personal, but is still personal.”

Shribman makes this astute observation about the importance of dating. He believes that the dating deficit is serious because it grows out of the social and cultural crisis we have in the ways we are dealing with one another.

I was happily reminded of how important it is no matter what is at stake. Whether treating wounds or just meeting people on the checkout line at a supermarket, practicing grace, tact and kindness helps us all to feel a valued part of a community.

A tip of my hat to Professor Cronin.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist.  A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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