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Courtesy: the Virtue that Precedes All Others

Rodney Richards | Apr 8, 2017

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Rodney Richards | Apr 8, 2017

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

You’re probably familiar with the old saying “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

The Baha’i teachings offer a similar but much more poetic aphorism:

A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 15.

Both have to do with asking for what one wants or needs, and there’s the rub. In our fast-paced Western cultures we’re used to telling a clerk, “Medium hot coffee, black,” and getting it for a few dollars and no more words, except perhaps a perfunctory “Thanks”—if we’re in a good mood. We’re rushed, and we want service with few words and even fewer delays. We want our order right the first time with no mistakes, no matter how clear or unclear we’ve been in our request, and we want a full refund, no questions asked, if the smallest thing is wrong. Demanding, aren’t we?


Sadly, we go through the motions without understanding that an actual human exchange could be the cause of our happiness.

Attitudes of superiority and elitism like these begin in childhood. We all know that most human personalities are formed by the age of five (some say as early as three). So the importance of modeling by our parents or guardians is paramount to our future dealings with people. If our parents are unable to educate us, provide for us, teach us morals, we are bereft of the human emotion of empathy, and later that may become lack of sympathy, lack of remorse, or even sociopathic behavior.

Those tendencies all lead to demanding and telling others what to do, instead of realizing that life is a two-way street, and we are obligated to give understanding and empathy to others in return. The Baha’i teachings say that only education—moral and spiritual as well as academic—can polish the gems of our inner beings:

Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess. Through a word proceeding out of the mouth of God he was called into being; by one word more he was guided to recognize the Source of his education; by yet another word his station and destiny were safeguarded. The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 162.

Educating our children through their teenage years to become wholesome, considerate, thoughtful, kind and wise adults is difficult enough. Yet we often spend more of our money, time and resources learning about those physical things that support our bodies and minds than we do the spiritual things that support our true identities as creatures of a loving and magnanimous Creator.

Based on my wife Janet’s knowledge of child development as a fifth-grade teacher, raising our children properly was much easier. One of the earliest concepts we taught was courtesy, which paved the way to other virtues. Courtesy encouraged sharing toys and playing with other children well, waiting to let others fully speak and not interrupting, being polite with friends and strangers and taking an interest in what they had to say. In other words, that initial virtue of courtesy led directly to mutual respect of persons and things.

Part of that respect involved learning how to courteously ask for things, for we fully believed Jesus Christ when he said, “Ask and you shall receive, knock and the door shall be opened.” As older Baha’is we knew that also meant God, but it was very applicable to the catching flies with honey quote as well. As we taught our children courtesy, we realized, too, that it adorned every other human virtue:

We, verily, have chosen courtesy, and made it the true mark of such as are nigh unto Him. Courtesy is, in truth, a raiment which fitteth all men, whether young or old. Well is it with him that adorneth his temple therewith, and woe unto him who is deprived of this great bounty. – Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 50.

What we ask for is important of course, but it’s the “How” that makes all the difference in the world—it’s the courtesy of the request that determines the response.

At work, when going to my own staff, I always started with one, their name, and two, the phrase, “Can you please…?” We mutually agreed on a time to complete the task. I tried to stay cognizant that they were doing other things as well. To me, it was always a two-way street. Of course there were times when I had to ask in a more forceful way, change priorities, and reassign projects, just as in any organization. But I always started with “Can you please…?” or at least tried to.

So the modern advice to “Think before you act” is justified in all our relationships. To me, as I tried to explain to my children, it’s all just an outgrowth of simple courtesy.

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  • Behrooz Tahririha
    Apr 10, 2017
    thank you for writing about courtesy, it is gravely needed in our homes and work place. our tongues are deprived of it. how great it would be if all of the people remember courtesy when speaking to each other.
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